The chief executive of Heathrow has been issued an ultimatum by the UK government to provide a plan to fix the airport's staffing problems, which have disrupted the travel plans of thousands of passengers and led to a row with Emirates.
John Holland-Kaye has until midday UK time on Friday to deliver his assessment of why the airport determined that a cap of 100,000 daily departing passengers “provides a safe and resilient airport with a positive passenger experience”.
This week, the airport introduced the limit, saying it could not safely cope with more passengers and was trying to fix the chaos which has marred operations in recent months.
Thousands of flights have been cancelled, passengers have faced hours of queues to check in and make it through security, with thousands more unable to be reunited with their luggage. Adding to Heathrow's problems, overrunning maintenance works meant the northernmost of the airport's two runways was closed when traffic resumed on Friday.
On Tuesday, Heathrow went as far as appealing to airlines to stop selling summer tickets as it imposed the cap, which will remain until September 11.
The west London airport ordered airlines to slim down their schedules but Emirates refused. A strongly worded statement accused the airport of a "cavalier" attitude towards passengers.
Virgin Atlantic also criticised the airport’s actions and claimed it was responsible for failures which are contributing to the chaos.
A British Airways spokesman said the cap is “incredibly disappointing” as it has already taken “responsible action to reduce our summer schedule”.
The Department for Transport’s director general for aviation Dr Rannia Leontaridi and Civil Aviation Authority chief executive Richard Moriarty have written a joint letter to Mr Holland-Kaye.
The letter, seen by PA, said: “We need you to develop a credible and resilient capacity recovery plan for the next six months, that provides comfort that Heathrow can operate reliably at a stable level of capacity.
“Heathrow and the airlines that use your airport must be assured, and be able to assure us, that you have in place a plan that can deliver a positive passenger experience through allowing as many people as possible to travel, without too much disruption and queues, and in particular to avoid significant numbers of short-notice and on-the-day cancellations.
“The Government and the CAA are concerned that current resourcing plans are not delivering this outcome.”
In its statement on Thursday, Emirates accused Heathrow bosses of showing "blatant disregard for consumers" by attempting to force it to "deny seats to tens of thousands of travellers".
It said Heathrow's demands were "unreasonable and unacceptable" and described the airport management as being "cavalier about travellers and airline customers".
While Emirates had planned ahead for the reopening of the skies, Heathrow "chose not to act, not to plan, not to invest. Now faced with an 'airmageddon' situation due to their incompetence and non-action, they are pushing the entire burden ― of costs and the scramble to sort the mess ― to airlines and travellers".
Emirates, which operates six daily return flights between the airport and Dubai, continued: "LHR [London Heathrow] last evening gave us 36 hours to comply with capacity cuts, of a figure that appears to be plucked from thin air.
"Their communications not only dictated the specific flights on which we should throw out paying passengers, but also threatened legal action for non-compliance.
"This is entirely unreasonable and unacceptable and we reject these demands."
Emirates said it would continue business as usual to and from Heathrow, "until further notice".
The airline said 70 per cent of its passengers from Heathrow were booked to travel on connecting flights from Dubai, highlighting the effect the rejected cuts would have on its own operations. It also pointed out the order was being made "during the super peak period with the upcoming UK holidays, and at a time when many people are desperate to travel after two years of pandemic restrictions".
In response, a Heathrow spokeswoman said aviation is “a complex network” and “no one can operate in isolation”.
She explained that staffing for ground-handling teams at the airport are only at 70 per cent of pre-pandemic levels, whereas passenger numbers are at 80-85 per cent.
She said: “For months we have asked airlines to help come up with a plan to solve their resourcing challenges, but no clear plans were forthcoming and with each passing day the problem got worse.
“We had no choice but to take the difficult decision to impose a capacity cap designed to give passengers a better, more reliable journey and to keep everyone working at the airport safe.”
She noted the cap is “significantly higher” than the 64,000 imposed at Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport.
“It would be disappointing if instead of working together, any airline would want to put profit ahead a safe and reliable passenger journey,” she said.
In December last year, Heathrow said it expected passenger numbers for 2022 to reach around 45 million.
It subsequently raised its forecast to “nearly 53 million” in May, and 54.4 million for last month.
Terminal 4 reopened on June 14, three months after the UK lifted all remaining coronavirus travel restrictions.
It was the last terminal at any major European airport to resume operations during the pandemic.
Virgin Atlantic chief customer and operating officer Corneel Koster said “everybody should have got ready for this increased demand”.
He told the PA news agency: “If you’re around the table and the Heathrow voice says ‘it won’t happen, it will come later, I will only open my fourth terminal in June’, that’s a planning mistake.
“They have downplayed demand. They should have opened T4 earlier.
“They should have played an even stronger role in the community.”