Heathrow Airport blames Easter travel chaos on Covid restrictions

Flights of up to 20,000 travellers from the UK cancelled at the weekend as airports struggle to cope with resurgent numbers

Passengers are facing long queues at Heathrow Airport, west London, as the airport has recorded its busiest month since the start of the coronavirus pandemic.
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London's Heathrow Airport blamed coronavirus checks for the long delays which have caused travel chaos over recent weeks.

Problems have been compounded by Covid staff shortages and resurgent passenger numbers following the ending of UK travel restrictions in March.

As a consequence, it was the airport's busiest month since the start of the pandemic in spring 2020, with nearly 4.2 million passengers processed, according to data released by Heathrow on Monday.

It is believed up to 20,000 passengers were forced to cancel or alter their Easter plans after flights were cancelled at the weekend.

British Airways and easyJet said they cancelled more than 100 flights at Heathrow and Gatwick airports.

On Monday, the figure rose as British Airways cancelled 58 more domestic and European flights, and easyJet cut 32 more flights.

A spike in coronavirus-related staff absences, combined with difficulties in recruiting new staff, means the aviation sector has struggled to cope with passenger numbers in recent weeks.

The airport cut dozens of jobs during the pandemic and, now that the sector is returning to pre-pandemic activity, it is struggling to deal with staff sickness and is having to wait for recruits to pass stringent security checks.

Heathrow admitted “resources are stretched” but said it is “working closely with airlines and ground handlers to make sure this increase in demand can be met while keeping passengers safe”.

There is “congestion in check-in areas at peak times” as “half of global markets” still require passengers to pass coronavirus checks such as testing and vaccination status, according to Heathrow.

It said that “other airport processes are currently working to plan” and it is working with the UK Border Force to “ensure sufficient levels of resource are in place to cope with the large number of passengers returning to the UK over the next couple of weeks”.

Ministers have called on the government to fast-track staff security checks.

“The government needs to begin clearing the huge backlogs in security checks so airport staff can safely begin work,” Louise Haigh, the shadow transport secretary, said.

The Civil Aviation Authority has written a letter to airlines telling them that the “distressing” flight cancellations could have a ripple effect across the industry, which is recovering from the battering it took during the pandemic.

Heathrow reports March resurgence

Paradoxically the cancellations indicate sectorial recovery, a trend burnished by the 4,196,656 passengers who used Heathrow in March.

This is the highest number since February 2020 and represents nearly an eight-fold increase on the total during the same month in 2021.

“It is fantastic to see the airport coming back to life after two years, and I want to thank all team Heathrow colleagues for working together to serve our passengers,” chief executive John Holland-Kaye said.

“Everyone at Heathrow is doing everything we can to make sure passengers get on their way as smoothly and safely as possible.”

The rise in passenger numbers was attributed to the government’s removal of all coronavirus travel restrictions.

However, new figures show Heathrow slipped from the second busiest airport for international travel before the pandemic to number seven in 2021.

Airports Council International said Heathrow was used by 17.6 million international passengers last year, down 77 per cent on the total for 2019.

Dubai maintained its spot at the top of the ranking.

The five airports to overtake Heathrow in 2021 were Istanbul, Amsterdam, Frankfurt, Paris Charles de Gaulle and Doha.

Updated: April 11, 2022, 11:07 AM