Heathrow's bounceback hamstrung by Covid restrictions in Asia

West London airport expects to treble its passenger numbers this summer compared to last year

A British Airways plane on a runway at Heathrow Airport, with the London skyline visible in the background. PA
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Latest Heathrow news: Passenger numbers plummet to lowest in 50 years

Heathrow Airport fortunes are improving but it will be kept in limbo and unable to bounce back to its pre-pandemic state until big Asian travel markets such as China and Japan reopen to international travellers, an aviation analyst has said.

Britain’s busiest airport hopes to attract 29.2 million passengers over the summer travel period — which runs from the end of March until the end of October — an ambitious target which is three times the 10.5 million who passed through its doors last summer.

But despite the lifting of most travel restrictions in Britain and the further afield, the target pales in comparison with the 50 million passengers who passed through Heathrow’s doors in summer 2019 before the Covid-19 pandemic hit.

What to expect from Heathrow’s 2021 results

Before the release of Heathrow’s financial results on Wednesday, industry expert John Grant at OAG, a UK-based travel data provider, predicted slightly more promising results for 2021 than the £2 billion in losses the West London airport reported for 2020.

However, he told The National these would probably be only “moderately better”.

“The situation is improving in 2022 and their forecast for 2022 will certainly be a lot better than it was for 2021 or 2020, but Heathrow is not going to be putting through the same passenger volumes this summer as it did in summer 2019,” he said.

The reopening of the US travel market to vaccinated international travellers in November, almost 20 months after the borders were closed, offered a much-needed boost to the airline industry. The move came four months after Britain introduced quarantine-free travel for vaccinated visitors from the US.

However, big Asian markets such as Singapore and Hong Kong remained closed last year, causing Heathrow to suffer.

“There was some European activity [in summer 2021] but it wasn’t significantly bigger than 2020,” Mr Grant said. “It was a little bit better, it wasn’t significantly better.”

“Europe is essentially open and British Airways and the other European airlines flying to London Heathrow are operating again. So, on that basis, it is as good as it can get.”

How can Heathrow get back on its feet?

Heathrow, the UK’s largest airport, enjoyed its best year in 2019 when it served 80.9 million passengers.

The coronavirus crisis hit the hub hard and caused it to lose its title as Europe’s busiest airport, dropping from first to 10th place in the league table.

Mr Grant said there can be no return to the airport’s hey days until key destinations lift flight bans.

“It’s not what Heathrow has to do, it’s what the other countries have to do to allow the airlines to restart those services,” the analyst said.

“We’ve seen Singapore and Malaysia expand their opening over the last few days and we’ve seen similar developments in Vietnam and in Thailand. But there is no positive development yet from either Japan or China.”

South Korea, another big beast in Asian travel, also remains blocked to international passengers two years on from the start of the pandemic.

Desperate to keep out Omicron and stave off another wave of infections, China is allowing only 1 per cent of the normal international flights to and from it airports.

Being frozen out of the Chinese market represents massive losses for Heathrow and is hindering its recovery from the pandemic.

“The average Chinese traveller is a very heavy spender on luxury travel items when they pass through London Heathrow,” Mr Grant explained.

He said there is “no comparison whatsoever” between the amount spent by the average British traveller heading to Europe for a week in the sun and the amount forked out by Chinese passengers.

“We’re talking an average of hundreds of pounds versus perhaps £20 or £30.”

The recent reopening of Australia to international flights will boost some international carriers at Heathrow, including Etihad, Emirates, Qatar Airways and Singapore Airlines.

Mr Grant said it was not as big of a deal as the re-emergence of China and Japan would be in the international travel sphere, but acknowledged “every little bit certainly helps”.

The escalating crisis in Ukraine has prompted some airlines to suspend flights to and from the country. Germany's Lufthansa said it was halting flights to Ukraine from Monday, joining KLM.

Scandinavian airline SAS also suspended weekly flights while Air France has decided to cancel Tuesday flights between Paris and Kiev as a “precautionary measure".

On Monday, Russia recognised two breakaway regions of eastern Ukraine and sent troops and tanks across the Ukrainian border, raising fears of a full-scale invasion of the former Soviet nation.

Mr Grant said any suspensions would have only a minuscule effect on Heathrow, as travel to and from Ukraine represents only a “nano percentage of their total revenue”.

“I would be more worried about broader consumer sentiment than the specific loss of traffic flow to and from [Ukraine].”

Updated: February 23, 2022, 7:46 AM