Heathrow passenger numbers depressed but hope rises with 12,000 new jobs

Aviation’s recovery overshadowed by war and Covid uncertainty, says airport chief

Passengers at Heathrow Airport Terminal 5 in London. About 2.8 million passengers travelled through the UK hub last month, 15 per cent below its forecast. PA

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Britain's Heathrow Airport is going on a hiring spree that includes 12,000 jobs that will allow the busy transport hub to prepare for the busy summer holiday period.

Passenger numbers for February remained almost 50 per cent down on pre-pandemic levels, with the Ukraine war adding a fresh crisis for the aviation sector. the airport said.

About 2.8 million passengers travelled through the London hub last month — 15 per cent below its forecast — as concerns from US travellers over war in Europe, longer flight times to avoid closed airspace and higher fuel prices added to lingering worries about Covid-19.

However, Heathrow said the strength of outbound leisure bookings reported by airlines indicates its busiest days this summer could see demand return to as high as 85 per cent of pre-pandemic levels.

It said, however, that check-in areas are “likely to feel even busier” than that because of additional pre-departure checks.

“This is higher than current airline, handler and airport capacity, so we are putting passengers first by gearing up across the airport for peak demand, working with airlines to reduce check-in times and recruiting 12,000 new colleagues, as well as reopening Terminal 4 before July,” an airport official said.

The official added there was “particularly concern over Border Force's ability to scale up to meet demand".

The war has created “huge uncertainty” over the recovery in flying, the airport said, while demand from inbound leisure and business travel remained suppressed by the testing and quarantine requirements still in place in nearly two thirds of the markets it serves.

“Aviation’s recovery remains overshadowed by war and Covid uncertainty,” said Heathrow chief executive John Holland-Kaye.

While the airport hopes Covid-19 testing regimes will be removed as more countries ditch travel restrictions, Heathrow officials said it also faces “headwinds from higher fuel prices, longer flight times to destinations impacted by airspace closures, concerns from US travellers over war in Europe and the likelihood of new [Covid-19] 'variants of concern'”.

Together, these “create huge uncertainty over the passenger forecasts this year”.

The UK's largest airport said it had not seen as many passengers return last month as it expected, with the numbers much lower than the 5.4 million who travelled through the airport in February 2020 — right before the coronavirus crisis began to have a major impact on the aviation industry.

In 2020, all flights from Terminal 4 were suspended as a result of the pandemic.

The Civil Aviation Authority is expected to make a final decision this year on how much Heathrow can charge airlines for using the airport up to 2027.

The regulator allowed Heathrow to increase charges by more than 50 per cent from the beginning of this year as a temporary measure.

“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,” Mr Holland-Kaye said.

Updated: March 11, 2022, 9:51 PM
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