Airline passengers will need to take COVID-19 tests before flying long after a vaccine for the viral infection has been introduced, the head of what’s usually Europe’s busiest airport warned.

The time required for a global vaccine roll-out means testing must go hand-in-hand with inoculation if international travel is to return to meaningful levels, London Heathrow airport Chief Executive Officer John Holland-Kaye said in an interview Wednesday.

“Even with the U.K. getting early access to a vaccine it’ll take a year and a half to vaccinate the entire country,” Holland-Kaye told Bloomberg TV. “It’s going to take much longer before even the fastest vaccine can really have a massive impact around the world.”

Entry Restrictions

International flights have barely revived from groundings earlier this year as countries impose travel curbs to stem fresh outbreaks of the coronavirus. While Pfizer Inc.’s announcement of a vaccine that appears to prevent 90 per cent of infections has buoyed airline stocks, it’s not clear how air-transport regulators will respond and how quickly the breakthrough will benefit the industry.

The current imperative is to quickly introduce COVID-19 tests for people arriving in the U.K. from high-risk areas in order to slash quarantine periods that are putting almost all potential customers off flying, Holland-Kaye said.

Later, pre-departure tests would see people screened 72 hours before flying and again after touching down, potentially obviating the need for self-isolation, he said.

U.K. Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said Monday that a task force is making good progress toward a plan for testing on arrival. It should be introduced once the current national clampdown is eased, he said, without providing a timetable.

Heathrow has been Europe’s busiest airport for years, though Paris Charles De Gaulle overtook it in September after U.K. quarantines introduced to fight the virus hammered air traffic.

Its passenger tally was down 82 per cent last month compared with a year earlier, it reported Wednesday, with the normally lucrative North American market slumping 95 per cent. Holland-Kaye said he expects business to pick up in December once Britain ends its lockdown and introduces basic at-airport testing.