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London Heathrow Records Busiest Month Since Before the Pandemic

The number of passengers that passed through the U.K.'s busiest airport last month was more than double the number seen in January 2020, and almost back to pre-pandemic levels

by Fergus Cole

February 14, 2023

Photo: London Heathrow Airport. Courtesy of David Parry / PA Wire

A total of 5.4 million passengers passed through London Heathrow (LHR) in January, the airport’s busiest start of the year since 2020. The recently released figures show that Heathrow—the biggest airport in the U.K. and one of the busiest in Europe—is ‘back to its best,’ according to the airport’s boss John Holland-Kaye.

While the total number of 5.4 million passengers wasn’t quite at the level of January 2020, which logged a record 6.1 million passengers, it was more than double the 2.6 million passengers seen in January 2022.

Most foreign passengers that passed through the airport last month were from the E.U. at around 1.6 million, but North American travelers also made up a significant proportion at almost 1.2 million.

Like much of the airline industry and most airports worldwide, Heathrow saw a massive drop in passenger numbers during the COVID-19 pandemic. But while the U.K.’s borders have long been open after initially closing in March 2020, the airport has struggled with the rebound of passenger numbers.

London Heathrow LHR Airport Terminal 2 in the United Kingdom / Photo: Markus Mainka/Adobe Stock

In the summer of 2022, the airport’s management was forced to cap the number of passengers each airline could fly due to severe staff shortages, causing severe delays and disruption. Like many other airports around the globe, Heathrow laid off hundreds of employees during the pandemic, most of whom didn’t return to their positions once traffic rebounded.

The airport has faced even more challenges in recent months, with the U.K.’s Border Force staff staging strikes in December which caused widespread disruption at airports across the country. However, Heathrow said it had ‘successfully managed recent strike action,’ claiming its customers faced minimal disruption and delays.

The airport also claimed that overall passenger satisfaction was higher last month than pre-pandemic levels, with 98% of Heathrow passengers waiting less than 10 minutes at airport security.

“Heathrow is back to its best, with passenger satisfaction scores meeting or exceeding 2019 levels,” said John Holland-Kaye, chief executive of London Heathrow. “We are giving a warm welcome to families over the half-term getaway by delivering excellent service and bringing back the magic of travel.”

However, while passenger numbers are currently high, the airport could face further challenges in the coming weeks. The trade union Unite, which represents security staff, engineers, and firefighters at U.K. airports, is voting on Friday whether to strike over a pay dispute, which the union said would ‘inevitably cause severe disruption’ during the Easter period.

But there are also reasons for optimism, with the airport supporting the decision of major airlines, including British Airways and Virgin Atlantic, to resume flights to China after almost three years. This comes after China finally reopened its borders at the end of last year, with Heathrow describing the country as a ‘key market for British exports’.