Heathrow traffic struggles at 50% of pre-pandemic levels as fuel costs and the outbreak of the Ukraine war add to its problems
Low levels of overseas business travel and tourists coming to Britain have kept Heathrow’s passenger numbers at just over half of pre-pandemic volumes. Only 2.9 million people went through Heathrow in February, compared to 5.4 million in February 2019 – the month before the World Health Organisation declared the Covid-19 outbreak to be a pandemic. This was despite the US lifting a 20-month international travel ban on non-US residents and citizens flying to the country, which lead to a surge in travel between the UK and the US. But traveller numbers on Middle Eastern and EU routes rose by over 600%, while the cargo tonnage rose to within 7% of its pre-pandemic levels. Flight bookings continue to be significantly reduced by the continuing strict testing and quarantine rules in multiple countries. Business travel is significantly lower, as companies have cut back expenditure on flights and largely turned to videoconferencing meetings and hybrid working practices. The cost of jet fuel has risen sharply, due to the war in Ukraine. There is also concern about new Covid variants, and some American travellers worry about the behaviour of Russia in Ukraine.
Heathrow traffic struggles at 50% of pre-pandemic levels as fuel costs and the outbreak of the Ukraine war add to concerns for Britain’s biggest airport
Only 2.9m people came through Heathrow last month, against 5.4m in Feb 2020.
Demand for flights has remained affected by strict testing and quarantine rules
Heathrow said bookings could hit 85% of pre-pandemic volumes this summer
By HARRY WISE FOR THIS IS MONEY
11 March 2022
Low levels of overseas business travel and tourists coming to Britain has kept Heathrow’s passenger numbers at just over half of pre-pandemic volumes.
Only 2.9 million people transited through Britain’s largest airport in February, compared to 5.4 million in the month before the World Health Organisation declared the Covid-19 outbreak to be a pandemic.
This was despite the United States Government lifting a 20-month international travel ban on non-US residents and citizens flying to the country, leading to an elevenfold year-on-year surge in North American traffic.
At the same time, traveller numbers on Middle Eastern and European Union routes climbed by over 600%, while the amount of transported cargo rose modestly to within just 7% of its pre-pandemic levels.
But the total quantity of commercial aeroplanes either taking off or landing at the British Airways hub was more than 40% on 2020 levels at 20,074.
Flight bookings continue to be significantly affected by strict testing and quarantine rules in multiple countries, even as vaccination programmes have enabled countries to loosen lockdown restrictions.
Business travel remains particularly suppressed as companies have cut back expenditure on flights and instead resorted, in large part, to videoconferencing meetings and hybrid working practices.
More recently, the emergence of the Omicron variant of coronavirus, which is more contagious though less deadly than previous variants, has made many people reluctant to book foreign holidays.
On top of this, Heathrow noted that demand is expected to be impacted in the near term by rising fuel prices, worries about new coronavirus variants, and concerns among American travellers about Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine.
Yet it said demand among Britons for foreign vacations has been ‘recovering strongly’ and is forecasting bookings during the height of the summer holidays could reach as much as 85% of pre-pandemic volumes.
This is anticipated to put some capacity strain on airlines, airports and handlers, so to cope with this, the West London airport is hiring 12,000 extra people and reopening Terminal 4 sometime before July.
However, it expressed concern that the Border Force agency would be unable to ratchet up its capabilities to meet the predicted rebound in passengers.
The international airport will also be waiting for a decision from the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) on how much it would be allowed to charge air carriers for using the airport over the next five years.
From the start of 2022, the cap on the amount the airport was allowed to charge airlines on a price per passenger basis was raised from £19.60 to £30.19, a figure below what Heathrow had wanted.
About six weeks before this, the boss of British Airways’ parent company IAG warned that his firm could reduce the number of flights it operates at the airport in the event of increasing customer levies.
Raising such fees would help Heathrow slash the very high financial losses it has posted since the pandemic began, yet airlines like IAG have also made substantial annual losses, so any hike could imperil their revival.
Heathrow’s chief executive John Holland-Kaye remarked: ‘Aviation’s recovery remains overshadowed by war and Covid uncertainty.
‘But we need to ensure we are geared up to meet peak potential demand this summer and are relying on the CAA to make a fair financial settlement that incentivises investment to maintain passenger service and encourages airlines and Heathrow to work together to grow passenger numbers.’
Heathrow warns of delays when summer takes off
By Robert Lea, Industrial Editor (The Times)
Saturday March 12 2022
Heathrow has painted a gloomy picture for travellers in the coming months, warning of the return of long queues and delays fuelled by additional pre-departure checks and fears of the inability of UK Border Force to cope.
It also said that demand for and delivery of long-haul services would be hit by longer journey times going east because of the shutdown of Russian airspace, anxieties of inbound American travellers over war in Europe and about Covid-19 “variants of concern”.
It said that 2.8 million passengers passed through its terminals last month, meaning that it was still operating only at half its capacity. Rising demand through the summer would come at a cost, it said.
“Based on the strength of outbound leisure bookings . . . peak days in the summer holidays could be very busy, at up to 85 per cent of pre-pandemic levels,” it said. “This is likely to feel even busier in check-in because of the additional pre-departure checks. We are particularly concerned over Border Force’s ability to scale up to meet demand.”
It said it was grappling with the “risk of the return of ‘Heathrow hassle’ with long queues and delays”.
There was a more upbeat prognosis from the operator of Stansted and Manchester airports, which are operating at 61% and 63% of pre-pandemic levels, between them handling 2.28 million passengers last month.
Charlie Cornish, chief executive of MAG, said it was recruiting staff for the summer push. “Now that the government has made clear that it will only consider implementing new public health measures at the border in extreme circumstances, we are well on the way to a sustained recovery as we head into the summer season.”