Heathrow urges UK to change travel rules as passenger numbers slump

August traveller levels still 71% down on 2019 as European rivals recover quicker

People wait in line at the arrivals desk at Heathrow Airport, as Covid rules cause long delays for travellers. Reuters
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Britain’s largest airport on Monday urged authorities to change travel rules as passenger numbers in August were still 71 per cent below pre-pandemic levels in the same month in 2019.

Heathrow Airport officials said the ever-changing restrictions, “expensive and unnecessary testing” requirements and the lack of “a common approach across borders” continued to hinder the travel sector’s recovery.

Boris Johnson is set to scrap the traffic light system for travel, while PCR tests will not be required for fully vaccinated travellers as part of a winter plan for coping with Covid, reports said.

"The government has the tools to protect the UK's international competitiveness, which will boost the economic recovery and achieve its Global Britain ambitions," Heathrow chief executive John Holland-Kaye said on Monday.

"If ministers fail to take this opportunity to streamline the travel rules then the UK will fall further behind as trade and tourists will increasingly bypass the UK.”

Over the course of the pandemic, Heathrow has dropped from being the busiest airport in Europe in 2019, to 10th position as rivals including Schiphol, Paris and Frankfurt recover at a quicker pace.

The EU competitors also reached pre-pandemic cargo volumes at the end of 2020, while cargo at the UK’s biggest port is still down 14 per cent, compared to August 2019.

“The current traffic light system is an outlier and is delaying the Government’s Global Britain ambitions, handing rivals a competitive advantage while the UK loses market share,” Heathrow said.

Heathrow said it would favour a two-tier system with destination countries rated either low risk or high risk, with the latter still requiring hotel quarantine.

Under its proposal, supported by major airlines and the wider travel industry, fully vaccinated travellers would be able to travel freely, a system already adopted by many European countries, while those not vaccinated would take pre-departure or arrival tests using lateral flow tests, which are cheaper than PCR tests.

Under the current system, there are three tiers with expensive tests required even for those who are fully vaccinated.

In recent weeks, Heathrow has been plagued with hours-long queues for passengers arriving into the UK because of staff shortages and challenges in complying with Covid rules.

Heathrow said as the number of travellers increases, Border Force authorities must ensure they have adequate resources and processes in place to ensure travellers receive a warm welcome to the UK.

“Recent scenes of passengers waiting for hours to be processed through the UK border are totally unacceptable,” Heathrow said.

“Border Force can and should deliver both a secure UK border and an efficient service for passengers.”

Britain's Home Office, which is responsible for the Border Force, admitted earlier this month that delays at Heathrow were “unacceptable”.

Updated: January 11, 2022, 9:11 AM