Rising strikes and bookings threaten the Christmas break at Heathrow Airport

Security check lines spread beyond the barriers as a line winds through one of the departure halls at Heathrow Airport.

Despite a relatively quiet weekday afternoon, passengers still face long waits – an ominous sign as bookings surge over Christmas and the New Year coincides with strikes, threatening to disrupt travel at one of the busiest times of the year.

The withdrawal of passport control officials on Friday for more than a week raised fears of more flight delays and long queues at Britain’s busiest airport, just months after this summer’s travel chaos.

Executives from the airport, airlines and government have gathered to make sure disruption is limited, and they’re optimistic most passengers won’t be hit.

But they cautioned that some disruption – likely in the form of long lines on arrival for people who can’t pass through the ePassport gates – is inevitable.

“We are doing everything we can to protect our full operating schedules on Border Force strike days,” said John Holland-Kaye, chief executive of Heathrow Airport.

Strikes disrupted travel at Heathrow in November. © Dinendra Haria / Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

He added that departing passengers and the “vast majority” of arrivals should not be affected by the closure of passport controllers, who are in dispute with the government, not the airport.

Heathrow expected fewer than 6 million passengers to pass through the airport in December, down from 6.6 million in December 2019, just before the pandemic.

The seasonal rush will mark the airport’s first test since this summer’s turmoil, the end of a difficult year that has seen Heathrow impose a controversial cap on passenger numbers to try to control queues.

Nigel Wiking, chief executive of the Heathrow Airline Operators Committee (AOC), which represents airlines, said the threat of passenger restrictions over Christmas and New Year was only lifted after the protests. The airport had indicated it might take it back in late October.

From July to October, Heathrow operated a cap of 100,000 per day for passenger numbers to take pressure off baggage handling and reduce hours-long security queues.

Heathrow insists the summer disruption was largely caused by airlines failing to hire enough baggage handlers, a charge Holland-Kaye leveled at carriers earlier this year.

This led to a fierce counterattack from the airlines, which say that the inadequate recruitment of security staff at the airport is the main reason behind this.

Willie Walsh, president of the International Air Transport Association, said at the Airline 2022 conference in November.

He added that “heads will have to roll” if the airport in the summer of 2023 suffers problems similar to those that occurred this year.

AOC’s Wiking complained that requests for security clearances were still not being processed at the “correct pace.”

A Virgin Atlantic jet takes off from Heathrow Airport
A Virgin Atlantic plane takes off at Heathrow Airport © Simon Dawson / Bloomberg

Fears of more travel disruption have also reopened an intense debate between airlines and the airport about the speed of recovery and the number of people likely to pass through the UK’s busiest airport.

Airlines accuse the airport of deliberately underestimating the strength of the post-pandemic recovery.

Airlines say the slow recovery could lead to higher airport fees, which airlines pay to make sure they cover their costs. The regulatory body, the Civil Aviation Authority, is currently reviewing the fee level.

Virgin Atlantic, one of the airport’s biggest customers, in October accused the airport of using “deliberately pessimistic” forecasts.

She noted that Heathrow’s preliminary estimate of passenger traffic for the full year – 45 million passengers – had nearly passed in just the first nine months.

More than 55 million people passed through the airport between January and November, up from just 16.3 million people in 2021.

Edmund Rose, an aviation consultant, said passenger numbers are recovering more quickly than Heathrow had expected.

“The airport has announced that there will be 65.2 million passengers next year – which is clearly an underestimate against the current traffic,” he said. Rose expects more than 70 million passengers next year.

Heathrow, which is owned by investors including Spain’s Ferrovial and Qatar’s sovereign wealth fund, stands by its expectations and denies any involvement in the discussion of fees or regulatory issues.

And it insists it is doing as well as might be expected, given that the 400 companies operating in its site shed 25,000 of its 75,000 pre-coronavirus employees during the pandemic.

While about 13,000 people have been recruited, another 12,000 are needed and, in many cases, vetted and issued security clearances.

Many employees laid off during the pandemic have taken advantage of the current tight job market to move to new, more attractive jobs.

The CAA said: “We take into account the representations of Heathrow and the airlines, who have different views of each other about the future level of fees.” “But we will continue to make decisions in the best interests of consumers.”

However, some customers see the airport’s difficulties as a direct result of the sharp shift in demand post-coronavirus.

Flights were still being canceled as recently as last December due to concerns about the Omicron variant of Covid-19, said Marjan Reintel, CEO of KLM, the Dutch national airline.

Then pre-pandemic passenger demand levels returned almost immediately, in the spring and summer.

Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport, a major hub for KLM, also suffered severe disruption and still had a cap on passengers, which Heathrow used as evidence that it was no worse than its peers.

“They were really short on staff in June, because of the big baggage issues,” Rentel said of Heathrow. “So that was really painful.”

Heathrow said the current year has been a “challenging year” for the global aviation industry.

“As our passengers would expect, our current focus is on collaborating so that we can jointly offer our first proper Christmas break in three years, and continue to rebuild capacity before next spring and summer,” the airport said.

However, some are cautiously optimistic that renewed cooperation between the airport and its customers may avoid a repeat of the summer disruption.

AOC’s Wake said: “We want to help them [Heathrow]and work with them [on security] To get that in the right place, to get more people involved.”

Additional reporting by Phil Georgiadis

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