Heathrow boss says travel chaos could last ‘up to 18 months’

Strikes by Ryanair and easyJet crews are expected to hit travel at Gatwick on Wednesday

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Heathrow Airport’s boss says travellers should be braced for up to 18 months of chaos because it may take the aviation sector that long to recover from the Covid-19 pandemic.

His stark warning came as long queues and travel misery continued at Gatwick Airport on Wednesday morning after a week and a half of setbacks and flight cancellations.

Strikes called by Italian trade unions are likely to cause further issues for travellers, as crews from airlines including Ryanair, easyJet and Crewlink are expected to walk out for four hours from 10am until 2pm.

More than 230 flights scheduled for Wednesday will be cancelled as a result of the strike action, Italian media reported, with travellers heading to and from Gatwick set to be affected.

A chronic lack of airport and airline staff caused misery for passengers at UK airports in recent months, with the problems exacerbated last week during the school half-term holiday.

Thousands of travellers are stranded overseas after their flights back to Britain were cancelled by airlines struggling to cope with a sudden increase in demand for travel.

John Holland-Kaye, Heathrow’s chief executive, said the chaotic scenes blighting airports could drag on. “I think it will take 12 to 18 months for the aviation sector to fully recover capacity, so we will have to really carefully manage supply and demand,” he told the Financial Times’ Global Boardroom conference.

Passengers queue for check-in at Heathrow Airport's Terminal 5. PA

Tens of thousands of people employed in the aviation industry were laid off during the coronavirus crisis as travel restrictions brought most flights to a halt. Airports and airlines are now racing to recruit, hire and train new staff to cope with the travel boom. The wait for security clearances for incoming employees is holding back many employers in the industry when it comes to getting new recruits started on the job.

Mr Holland-Kaye called on government ministers to help ease the pressure on the sector by relaxing rules around security background and employment history checks for new staff.

Heathrow has instructed airlines to artificially limit the number of passengers on flights for the next two months to avoid possibly dangerous overcrowding at Terminal 5.

The UK’s busiest airport will reduce the number of passengers travelling through T5, the largest terminal at Heathrow, by as many as 1,200 people an hour between 5am and 6pm.

Gatwick, meanwhile, has been hit by upheaval in recent days caused by a dash to head abroad.

One traveller , Duncan, reported “longish queues at Gatwick” this morning but said lines were “moving quickly”.

Another passenger with the Twitter handle Calzoid68 said he had endured a “disastrous day” at Gatwick on Tuesday.

“No baggage handlers, no one to refuel plane, five-hour delay, all food outlets [had] massive queues and reduced choice,” he said. The disgruntled traveller also said he and his fellow passengers were forced to sit on their plane for an hour and an half “without moving” before take-off.

“Total disaster and it’s only going to get worse,” he said.


Passenger concerns over travel chaos have also been manifesting online. Analysis of Google search data revealed that searches for ‘cancel my flight’ rose 163 per cent in the UK in the days between May 22 and June 4, while searches for ‘refund my flight’ have risen 137 per cent.

Huw Merriman, chairman of the Transport Select Committee in the House of Commons, said the Conservative-led government should have taken action to prevent disruption at airports and called the current situation a “perfect storm” over staffing.

“I think there’s been a failure to understand that you can’t just flick a switch and expect the aviation industry to restart,” the Tory MP told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.

“They only had the full go-ahead on March 18. There’s a requirement for them to operate 70 per cent of their slots, otherwise they could lose them.

“So, effectively, the government and parliament have told them to restart at those levels, but it can take three months to get staff recruited and through the vetting process.

“As a result, you’ve got the perfect storm where you haven’t got enough staff in a job market where people are already worried about the future of aviation because they’ve lost jobs and it’s been start-stop, and also where you’ve got record unemployment levels of 1.2 million job vacancies.”

The boss of Cornwall Airport in Newquay admitted the industry should have been better prepared to prevent travel chaos, but is optimistic that the situation will improve in time for summer getaways.

“We should have planned better, we should have understood that the peak would come back, particularly this summer, but it came back earlier than people anticipated,” Tim Jeans told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme:

He said that some airlines, airports and ground handlers “have, frankly, been caught out”.

The problems blighting air travel coincide with increasing uncertainty around rail travel in the UK. Strikes by thousands of staff on the London Underground network this week forced many people to work from home and caused countless others to be late for work and school.

Further strikes by rail workers in the UK are on the cards for June 21, 23 and 25.

Heathrow through the years - in pictures

Updated: June 08, 2022, 2:55 PM