By Kate Holton
LONDON (Reuters) - Britain risks destroying its aviation sector and smothering any broader economic recovery after it failed to follow the likes of the United States and France in propping up its airlines, the head of London Heathrow Airport warned on Friday.
Europe's biggest airport said trade had disappeared in April, with passenger numbers set to fall by 97%, leaving many airlines such as Britain's Virgin Atlantic close to collapse.
"It is disappointing that the UK government stands out globally as being one of the few countries not to be supporting its aviation sector," Heathrow Chief Executive John Holland-Kaye told Reuters.
"I think it comes back to a lack of understanding perhaps of just how vital aviation is to the rest of the economy."
Global aviation has come to a near standstill as governments around the world lock down their economies to prevent the spread of COVID-19, forcing airlines to cut or suspend thousands of staff, park up planes and seek government bailouts.
Virgin Atlantic has said for weeks it is in talks with the British government about a bailout package and its largest owner, Richard Branson, has said it will go bust without one.
Pilots union BALPA responded to Friday's news that Ryanair was cutting 3,000 jobs by saying the government needed to "stop daydreaming" and step in. In response, the government says it is providing support through tax breaks, furloughing salary schemes and offering loans.
"We have the third biggest aviation sector in the world and if we don't take the right action now we could lose it," Holland-Kaye said.
The airport is talking to major hubs around the world to agree a set of health standards similar to security checks for once restrictions lift. Passengers should expect temperature checks, more automation to reduce human contact and the wearing of masks on flights.
It believes the concept of social distancing would not work for airports and airlines. "Far fewer people would be able to fly. Many of the routes wouldn't be viable and that would lead to even more job losses in the aviation sector," he said.
"More fundamentally it would cut off the UK from its key trading markets. Passenger jets out of Heathrow carry 40% of the UK's imports and exports. If they won't have those passenger planes then we can't get the UK economy firing on all cylinders."
($1 = 0.7962 pounds)
(Reporting by Kate Holton; Editing by William Schomberg and Mark Potter)