Heathrow Airport says coronavirus impact small so far

LONDON (Reuters) - Britain’s Heathrow Airport, the busiest hub in Europe, has so far seen little impact from coronavirus on passenger numbers, but its chief executive said it was too soon to say whether or not its growth this year would be curtailed by the outbreak.

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Heathrow CEO John Holland-Kaye said the airport was going beyond official guidance to ensure passenger safety, by deep cleaning across the airport and making hand sanitiser available.

He said the airport, whose owners include Ferrovial, Qatar Investment Authority and China Investment Corp, could take passenger temperatures if the authorities requested.

Coronavirus originated in China late last year, infecting about 80,000 people and killing more than 2,700, the vast majority in China. But in recent days it has spread rapidly across northern Italy and to other European countries.

British Airways and Virgin Atlantic cancelled flights between Heathrow and China last month, while an outbreak in Italy has prompted some countries to advise citizens not to visit the north of Italy, prompting fears over travel demand.

But Holland-Kaye said the airport was still seeing growth in passenger numbers coming through at the moment.

“We will be updating the market I think at the end of March when we will probably have a better view, but from a financial point of view, at this stage, we don’t see it being material,” he said in an interview.

Last year, 2% of Heathrow’s 81 million passengers came from China. Chinese airlines such as China Eastern, China Southern and Air China continue to operate between Heathrow and Chinese cities.

Heathrow has grown passenger numbers for the last nine years. Holland-Kaye said it was “too soon to say” if the virus could throw that trajectory off course.

Heathrow reported on Wednesday adjusted core earnings (EBITDA) of 1.9 billion pounds ($2.47 billion) for 2019, up 4.6%, on revenues that rose 3.4% to 3.1 billion pounds, boosted by a 1% rise in passenger numbers.

The airport has a project to build a third runway, which it says it can do without compromising environmental targets, but the expansion is subject to a legal challenge. A ruling on an appeal is due to be made by a judge on Thursday.

Heathrow has said it needs the new runway to keep its position as one of Europe’s leading airports and help grow Britain’s trade links and exports after Britain’s departure last month from the European Union.

France’s hub airport Charles de Gaulle is set to overtake Heathrow as the busiest airport in Europe in the next two years.

Reporting by Sarah Young; Editing by James Davey and Edmund Blair