Britain's Heathrow Airport suffers 1.3 million-passenger Omicron hit

Passengers either cancelled plans or did not book trips during December and January

While outbound tourism is looking more upbeat for the year ahead at Heathrow, inbound bookings are still weak. Reuters
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Bosses at Heathrow Airport on Friday said it had suffered a slow start to 2022 after 1.3 million passengers had their travel plans ruined by the Omicron variant of coronavirus, although there is hope of a summer rebound.

The London airport said many passengers either cancelled or did not book trips at all during December and January, with travel demand in January 56 per cent down on pre-coronavirus levels.

Heathrow, usually one of the world’s busiest airports, expects to be only half as busy this year as it was before the pandemic, and is banking on a booming summer holiday season to offset the sluggish start.

“After a tough Christmas, Omicron has continued to bite and this has been a weak start to the year. As short-lived as the additional travel restrictions were, they ruined the travel plans of more than 1.3 million passengers in the last two months,” said John Holland-Kaye, chief executive of Heathrow.

Mr Holland-Kay welcomed the removal of restrictions for vaccinated passengers in and out of the UK on Friday and said it “offers a ray of hope” for the industry.

“But the Omicron hangover proves demand remains fragile and at risk to new variants of concern and the government needs to set out a playbook for managing future variants that allows travel and trade to keep flowing,” he said.

While bookings for outbound tourism are recovering, Heathrow said inbound tourism and business travel remain weak due to Covid-19 levels in the UK and elsewhere, while international testing requirements and the risk of new border closures in the event of a new variant of concern are also a risk.

“We are maintaining our forecast for the year at just over half of pre-pandemic levels on the basis that strong demand for outbound summer holidays can offset a weaker start to the year, and are working with airlines and ground handlers to increase resources across the airport ahead of the summer peak,” a Heathrow statement said.

Britain unveiled a £10 million global tourism campaign at Expo 2020 Dubai on Wednesday as it looks to strengthen close trade ties with the UAE.

The global initiative to drive inbound tourism to the UK, after the sector was hammered by the fallout from the pandemic, comes as the country gears up for a year of big events including Queen Elizabeth II’s platinum jubilee celebrations and the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham.

The upbeat outlook for summer comes a day after the airport set out a series of green goals for the next decade as part of its strategy to develop and grow sustainably and ensure 2019 was its peak carbon year.

The Heathrow 2.0: Connecting People and Plant strategy aims to tackle climate change, decarbonise flights and improve the community around the airport with new measures to minimise noise and improve air quality.

Heathrow's views on the year ahead echoed those of the world's largest holiday company Tui, which said this week that British holidaymakers were leading a recovery in summer demand as testing rules and restrictions are lifted.

Meanwhile, the UK's second-largest airport Gatwick on Friday said it would reopen its south terminal next month, as it expects demand to pick up for summer.

The airport said a number of airlines, including British Airways, Aer Lingus, Oslo-listed Norwegian Air and low-cost groups Vueling, Wizz Air and Ryanair, will start returning to the south terminal from March 27.

The terminal shut down for nearly two years due to the coronavirus pandemic, however, the possibility of new variants still poses a threat to a sustained rebound and Gatwick's chief executive Stewart Wingate said it may take time for consumer confidence to fully recover.

Updated: February 13, 2022, 3:33 AM