Heathrow boss sets a flightpath to success - but will airlines give it the all-clear?

John Holland-Kaye tells The National of the upsets that blighted the London airport's recovery but insists: 'We'll get back to where we were'

London's skyscrapers adorn the horizon behind Heathrow. Getty Images
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Heathrow Airport’s chief executive, John Holland-Kaye, has laid out his plan to get the UK’s busiest aviation hub back on track after the battering it took from the Covid-19 pandemic. But London's main airport faces a struggle to convince its airline partners that it is back on track.

Speaking to The National, the west London airport’s boss opened up about the litany of upsets that have blighted Heathrow on its path to recovery.

In 2019, the last year before the coronavirus crisis forced countries into lockdown, about 80.9 million passengers travelled through the airport. From January to October 2022 more than 50 million people passed through its doors.

Heathrow last month won back its crown as Europe’s busiest airport after attracting 5.8 million passengers between July and September. The figure was more than that recorded by airports in rival cities such as Paris, Amsterdam and Frankfurt.

The influx offered a major boost to Heathrow, which ranked as the 10th busiest airport on the continent last year. However, it still has a long, uphill climb back to pre-pandemic levels.

‘It will take years to recover but we will get there’

While assailed by the criticism from significant industry figures such as Iata boss Willie Walsh, Mr Holland-Kaye struck a positive tone when discussing when a full rebound could most likely happen. “We will get back to where we were pre-pandemic,” he said defiantly. “I think it will take us until 2025-2026.

“Still a lot of rebuilding needs to happen across the whole of aviation."

He was keen to stress that the UK aviation sector is far from alone in its efforts to achieve pre-pandemic levels.

“We tend to think of the challenge of rebuilding as just being a UK thing, but it’s not," he said. "Almost any country you go to in the world you will see planes sitting idle because they haven’t enough pilots or problems with baggage. The whole ecosystem has been damaged by Covid. It will just take time to rebuild that.

“But actually in the UK we’re doing a pretty good job, given how badly the UK was affected.

“For Heathrow, the reality is we had the worst pandemic of any major hub and we drew more people in the last few months.”

‘No more caps on passengers’

Questioned about how the controversial caps imposed on airlines this summer had potentially harmed Heathrow’s reputation and its relations with carriers, Mr Holland-Kaye expressed a desire to leave the past behind.

The airport’s decision in July to limit the number of passengers to 100,000 per day over the summer was condemned by Emirates airline as “entirely unreasonable and unacceptable”.

The airport had for months endured chaotic scenes as tens of thousands of passengers faced lengthy queues at security, flight delays and cancellations.

The cap was lifted earlier this month, but the damage may already have been done.

“I can understand the frustration that some airlines would have had,” Mr Holland-Kaye said. “But we will put that behind us. We will now just focus on rebuilding demand together.”

Far from having strained relations with airlines, he said Heathrow works “very well” with airlines who fly in and out of the airport,

“I think collaboration is better than it has ever been,” he said.

“Nobody wants to have to put caps in place. It was the right thing to do over the summer and it meant that people could travel on their journeys over the summer, which is a good thing.

“We won’t need to do that again."

The Heathrow boss ruled out caps being re-imposed over the Christmas period.

Shai Weiss, chief executive of Virgin Atlantic, this week called on Heathrow to operate at full capacity next summer and rule out caps for the same period. The airline also said the regulatory system that protected Heathrow needs to be reformed. Without an overhaul of the regime, it said it would be "difficult to see how expansion at Heathrow can be supported”.

The Heathrow chief executive says that his team is addressing the airlines' concerns, particularly on capacity. "We’re working on the basis we will have no caps next summer," Mr Holland-Kaye said. He pointed out that Heathrow employs just one in 10 people who work at the airport. The rest are hired by airlines and baggage handling companies.

In the past 12 months Heathrow has hired 16,000 people, a feat he described as phenomenal, and the number of security staff on the rota is the same as the pre-pandemic level.

“We had as many people working in security before the summer, before the end of July, as we had pre-pandemic,” he said.

Overall, he admitted more hiring needs to happen, predominantly to replenish back office staff numbers after redundancies during the Covid-19 crisis.

Looking ahead to next summer, he predicted a surge in demand for holidays.

“What we have to focus on is the peaks and the peak next summer might be just as busy as the peak we had in 2019 because most of the demand we’re seeing at the moment is leisure [travel]," he said. "So, next summer will be as busy potentially as it was in 2019.”

Asked if Heathrow would be prepared to handle peaks next summer, he said “I think we will”.

Speaking at the Airlines 2022 conference in London this week, Mr Weiss said he would still like to see Heathrow go ahead with plans for a third runway, but only with strict conditions. He said the expansion project, which has been a source of controversy among communities in west London, would be supported by Virgin Atlantic only if growth plans are accompanied by steps to boost flight path competition.

“We would support a third runway if, and only if, more competition is provided,” he said. “We’ve learnt a lot over the last few years through the pandemic and the last consultation on the charges to refine our unequivocal support to a more tentative support.”

Heathrow through the years - in pictures

'Reopening of markets is key to recovery'

The reopening of China, where Covid case numbers are increasing, as well as an easing travel requirements in countries in the Middle East, will be key to bringing demand back to where it was before the pandemic hit, he said.

After speaking with other figures in the aviation industry, he said there are concerns about bringing demand for travel back to where it was before lockdowns were imposed.

While the final set of the UK’s travel restrictions were lifted in March, Mr Holland-Kaye pointed out that many parts of the Middle East are still “not easy to travel through”.

“I was there a couple of weeks ago and I still had to have a PCR test before I could fly, fill out lots of apps, things like that,” he said, but failed to specify the destination.

“There’s a lot of friction still in travel, which means for business travellers it’s just not as easy to go and travel in the way you used to. It will take a while for that to come back. But at the moment it’s all about how quickly countries open.”

‘Border reforms needed to speed up flow of goods’

The airport boss called for a shake-up of Britain’s border rules to enable cargo to pass through Heathrow at a faster pace.

Under existing rules, goods arriving on flights at Heathrow have to be taken off site and sorted elsewhere before being returned to the airport for their onward journey.

Mr Holland-Kaye is pressuring the Conservative government to implement a new system that would allow goods to be sorted at the airport. This, he said, would significantly slash waiting times for cargo.

He said it is not a hangover from Brexit, but rather the result of a “very out-of-date system” in dire need of modernisation.

He cited Dubai Airport as a prime example of how different regulations can enable much shorter processing times.

“It takes about 30 minutes to take goods through the border of Dubai, it takes about four hours in the UK,” he said. “And this is for connecting goods, a big part of the airline cargo industry.

“That’s because the current rules mean you have to take goods out of the airport to sort them and then bring them back on again. Where in Dubai and other ports you can [sort] them on airport.

“There are a number of things that we’re talking about with the UK government to see how we can just speed up the flow of connecting goods through the airport,” he said.

Under the 2025 UK Border Strategy, the government has said it is committed to streamlining processes to benefit traders and travellers and improve security and biosecurity. The government is trialling several technologies that will enable people and goods to be processed at ports at a faster pace.

Mr Holland-Kaye said the rules around cargo are an example of how Britain “could have a world-class border”.

“We’re getting there for people, e-gates are fantastic, but we are behind the game in terms of cargo and we can do much better in the next couple of years.”

Updated: November 25, 2022, 6:00 PM