Heathrow chairman Lord Deighton blames 'slasher' airlines for travel chaos

Airlines told to stop selling summer flights to reduce chaos at its terminals

Heathrow said it will ask airlines to cancel more flights this summer. PA
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The chairman of Heathrow Airport, Lord Paul Deighton, has laid the blame for travel chaos on airlines failing to recruit enough baggage handlers.

He said wages were not being paid at market rate and that had led to a shortage of staff. He said the whole travel industry was "grappling" with the legacy of surviving during the pandemic with no income.

European airports, particularly Heathrow, have struggled to get into gear since Covid-19 travel restrictions were dropped. Passengers have endured last-minute flight cancellations, huge queues at check-in and security, and missing luggage. It was given an ultimatum by the UK government to fix the problems swiftly.

Last week, Heathrow introduced a 100,000 daily passenger limit in an attempt to manage the disruption and ordered airlines to rip up their schedules.

This was met by resistance from some airlines, notably Emirates, which said it had enough ground crew in place and should not have to cancel flights due to Heathrow's inability to cope. Emirates' president Sir Tim Clark told Farnborough Airshow on Monday that anyone who behaved in that unacceptable fashion "would feel its wrath".

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Willie Walsh, the head of International Air Transport Association, said the management of Heathrow was "a bunch of idiots" for failing to foresee the recovery post-pandemic and the opening up of global business and tourism. "All you had to do was count up the tickets," he said.

Today, Lord Deighton maintained the fault lay with airlines' failure to recruit and defended the airport's chief executive John Holland-Kaye, who has come under fire for his handling of the situation. He denied the problem was down to a lack of planning or investment by the airport.

Writing in The Telegraph, Lord Deighton, a former Treasury official, said: “Ground handling is a highly competitive, labour intensive, low margin business, characterised by short term contracts. Airlines have driven down costs over the years, and this was one of the first costs they slashed during the pandemic.

Passengers run the gauntlet at Heathrow

“For months ground handling companies have been trying to recruit and train skilled workers, but if their airline customers aren’t willing to pay market rates, then they aren’t able to fill the posts.”

He said bosses at British Airways, which Mr Walsh formerly ran, had overseen a "decade of slashing".

He said: “For months we have been asking airlines to keep their ground handling resource in balance with demand. In the last few weeks, we have seen a shocking increase in planes departing without bags and passengers having their flights cancelled after they were already onboard."

Passenger caps have been introduced at many airports, including Amsterdam, Frankfurt and Gatwick.

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Updated: July 19, 2022, 8:01 AM