Heathrow urges airlines to scale back flights in 'extremely busy season'

UK's international airport was forced to cancel dozens of flights at short notice this week to avoid overcrowding

Passengers queue in Heathrow's Terminal 2 amid a spike in demand for flights this week. Reuters
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Heathrow Airport is urging airlines to take advantage of a relaxation of government rules on take-off and landing slots as it braces for an “extremely busy summer season”.

Passengers at the London airport were hit by last-minute flight cancellations this week as management ordered carriers to pull 30 flights from Thursday’s schedule to avoid overcrowding in terminals.

The number of people who turned up at the airport early on Thursday was 13 per cent higher than a week earlier. Setbacks at Gatwick Airport had caused a rush for flights at Heathrow.

The UK government last week announced an “amnesty” to allow airlines to hand back take-off and landing slots they are not confident they will be able to operate for the summer season.

Heathrow bosses are urging airlines to take a realistic look at their slots and take action if necessary to avoid last-minute flight cancellations.

A spokesman for British Airways, which has its main base at Heathrow, confirmed the airline had reduced its summer flight schedule by 11 per cent.

Terminal 4 reopened in June to reduce pressure on other terminals and by mid-July, it is expected to serve more than 30 airlines.

Although requirements for Covid-19 certificates have been dropped by the UK, many countries still have strict rules in place. This means airline staff have to spend extra time checking passengers’ documents depending on the destination, which can cause extended waiting times at gates.

“We encourage airlines to take this opportunity to reconsider their summer schedules without penalty and inform passengers as early as possible of any changes,” a spokesman for Heathrow said.

The number of passengers passing through the airport’s doors is now at the highest level since the pandemic took hold in Britain in March 2020.

“We have faced 40 years of growth in just four months and that has put the entire aviation industry under pressure,” the spokesman added.

“We expect an extremely busy summer season and we’re working hard to ramp-up our operations for the summer peak as quickly as we can with the same level of security officers this summer as in 2019 and we have reopened Terminal 4, which will be serving over 30 airlines by mid-July.”

He said that the airport's operating plan is working and the vast majority of passengers have had “good, predictable journeys”, though he expressed regret over those who have experienced delays or cancellations. .

“That being said, there are still Covid restrictions in place across some of our markets — which means that airlines and their check-in colleagues take longer to process each passenger through check-in,” he continued.

“There is a natural limit to what airlines can safely accommodate during their check-in process given the extended times they are taking to verify each passenger’s paperwork complies with destination requirements.

“To provide resilience to the operation, BA has already removed 10 per cent of their summer schedule. Our primary concern is the safe operation of the airport and we will continue to support the airlines to make safe decisions for passengers during this period.”

Huw Merriman, a Conservative MP and chairman of the House of Commons transport select committee, said that cash-strapped airlines have to pay back hefty loans taken out during the Covid-19 pandemic when flights were grounded and are therefore keen to operate as many flights full of passengers as possible.

In March, when the remaining Covid-19 travel rules were dropped, airlines faced a requirement to operate 70 per cent of their flights or risk losing their landing slots, which are expensive and difficult to get back if they are lost.

Mr Merriman pointed out that the aviation industry shed on average 5,000 jobs per month during the height of the pandemic and does not have enough staff in place to cope with current passenger levels.

“Demand has come back almost to pre-Covid levels but the airlines just cannot operate the numbers of flights that they want to operate,” he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.

He said it remains to be seen whether airlines would heed government advice and cancel flights at least 14 days in advance under the new amnesty rules.

Updated: July 04, 2022, 12:31 PM