London Heathrow Caps Number of Departing Passengers

The limit of 100,000 passengers per day is set to remain in effect through Sept. 11

London’s Heathrow airport has announced a cap on the number of departing passengers, setting a limit of 100,000 passengers a day during the busy summer travel period. The capacity caps will remain in effect through Sept. 11.

Airport officials estimate “the maximum number of daily departing passengers that airlines, airline ground handlers and the airport can collectively serve over the summer is no more than 100,000.”

The move comes after airlines at Britain’s busiest airport had already cut flights in response to a government appeal to reduce capacity. However, Heathrow says even with the airlines’ dropping flights, it still predicts there could be up to 104,000 passengers without the cap.

That means the daily average number of outbound seats still on the summer schedules is 4,000 above the airport’s projected capacity, with an average of 1,500 of these seats already sold to passengers.

In an open letter to passengers, Heathrow CEO John Holland-Kaye said, “Over the past few weeks, as departing passenger numbers have regularly exceeded 100,000 a day, we have started to see periods when service drops to a level that is not acceptable.”

Holland-Kaye cites long queues, baggage handling problems, low punctuality and last-minute cancellations as reasons behind the “difficult decision” to ask airlines to stop selling tickets for summer departures.

“We recognize that this will mean some summer journeys will either be moved to another day, another airport or be canceled and we apologize to those whose travel plans are affected,” he said.

Heathrow has historically been one of the world’s busiest international hubs, handling between 110,000 and 125,000 daily passengers departures in July and August 2019. However, the abrupt slowdown in travel prompted by the pandemic in 2020 slashed those numbers.

Now the UK hub, along with other European airports, are struggling to accommodate this year’s post-pandemic surge in summer travel demand. In June, London Gatwick announced it would limit the number of daily flight operations to 825 in July and 850 in August, compared to 900 flights per day in previous years.

Amsterdam Schiphol has introduced its own cap on passenger numbers some 16 percent lower than 2019 levels, and Frankfurt has reduced the number of flights from 104 to 94 per hour at peak times.

“By making this intervention now, our objective is to protect flights for the vast majority of passengers at Heathrow this summer,” Holland-Kaye said in his letter. “Some airlines have taken significant action, but others have not, and we believe that further action is needed now to ensure passengers have a safe and reliable journey.”

However, in an interview with Reuters, Willie Walsh, director general of the International Air Transport Association, was critical of the Heathrow response. “I am surprised Heathrow have not been able to get their act together better than this. Airlines have been predicting stronger traffic than Heathrow has been predicting.”

Walsh, who was formerly the CEO of British Airways, said of the Heathrow decision, “They clearly got it completely wrong. To tell airlines to stop selling—what a ridiculous thing for an airport to say to an airline.”

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