Heathrow baggage issues, cancellations and delays - the soaring numbers

Passenger numbers in June this year reached 5,990,385, similar to levels seen before March 2019

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After imposing a daily passenger cap, the kindest thing to say about Heathrow Airport right now is that it is in crisis mode.

Flights are being cancelled with startling regularity, delays are the norm and baggage piles are mounting.

The pandemonium is somewhat ironic given it has been caused by the travel resurgence airport chiefs spent most of the last two and a half years dreaming of.

Ever since UK Covid travel rules were imposed, industry honchos pled with the government to reduce restrictions significantly or remove them entirely, while simultaneously encouraging travellers to get airborne again.

Their wish granted, passenger numbers in June this year reached 5,990,385, a level comparable to that seen before March 2019.

Theoretically, the resurgence should have been music to the ears of Heathrow boss John Holland-Kaye, yet on Tuesday, he found himself having to justify capping passenger numbers to 100,000 a day until September 11, as the UK's largest airport sought to get a grip.

“Over the past few weeks … we have started to see periods when service drops to a level that is not acceptable,” he said in what constituted less of a statement and more of an understatement.

Take last Tuesday, when only one of the day’s 1,184 scheduled flights showed up on flight tracking sites as operational and on time.

Mr Holland-Kaye must hope this marks a nadir in Heathrow's fortunes, although his mood won't have been helped on Thursday, when Emirates airline rejected the order to cancel flights to comply with the passenger cap.


Though surprising, the passenger curb was not entirely unpredictable: the number of delays to date in the summer months at Heathrow marks a 78 per cent increase from the same period in 2019, aviation data firm OAG reported.

Cancellations are similarly compromised, with OAG figures suggesting an average 3.5 per cent of flights scheduled from Heathrow in the first two weeks of July didn't make it off the ground — a threefold increase on the first two weeks in July 2019. On its worst day in the month, a little more than one in 20 flights were cancelled.

Data from another provider, FlightAware, suggest that since the beginning of June, Heathrow has cancelled 559 flights within a week or so of scheduled departure, which it said marked a 299 per cent leap on the same period in 2019.

Heathrow's domino effect

At an interdependent hub such as Heathrow, when one aspect of the operation goes awry, the effect is akin to pushing the first in a long line of dominoes.

With passengers left stranded due to spiralling cancellations, a passengerless Delta Air Lines Airbus SE A330-200 flew 1,000 items of luggage, whose arrival had been delayed due to technical problems, back to the US.

“Delta teams worked a creative solution to move delayed checked bags from London-Heathrow on July 11 after a regularly scheduled flight had to be cancelled given airport passenger volume restrictions at Heathrow,” an airline representative said on Wednesday.

Baggage issues have bedevilled the airport, with a combination of staff shortages and malfunctioning automated baggage handling systems contributing to the mayhem.

There is only one accurate source of that data, which is the Iata World Tracer Baggage system, and that information is confidential.

However, given the hefty levels of flight cancellations and delays, it is safe to assume the numbers affected run into tens if not hundreds of thousands.

Lines of passenger luggage lie arranged outside Terminal 2 at Heathrow Airport in London. Reuters

While Heathrow's troubles cannot be underplayed, it is by no means alone, and IAG data released this week suggested it isn't even in the top 10 worst-performing European airports in terms of delays.

“The mistake all the badly hit carriers and hubs made is clear,” aviation expert John Grant told The National.

“[They] completely underestimated the strength of the recovery [from Covid] and have been scrambling for many months to find resources.”

Mr Grant's prognosis for a recovery wasn't exactly rosy, either.

“Recent actions by both airlines and airports will have a modest impact on the situation and we really should not expect any improvement before the end of the summer programme at the end of October.”

Planned strike action later this summer also looks set to compound the chaos with, about 16,000 British Airways workers likely to join 700 Heathrow Airport check-in staff on the picket line.

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Updated: July 15, 2022, 2:10 PM