More flights cancelled as increased Easter passenger numbers pile on pressure

Heathrow ‘stretched’ but airport pledges to build up resources as quickly as possible

More flights were cancelled on Monday as airlines and airports struggled to cope with the big Easter getaway, and Heathrow said it was increasing resourcing as fast as possible to deal with rising passenger numbers.

British Airways cancelled at least 64 domestic or European flights to or from Heathrow. Affected UK routes included Heathrow to Aberdeen, Edinburgh, Manchester and Newcastle, while the international routes affected were services to and from Berlin, Dublin, Geneva, Paris and Stockholm. British Airways said passengers were given advanced warning of the cancellations.

EasyJet cancelled at least 25 flights to or from Gatwick, affecting routes between the West Sussex airport and Amsterdam, Copenhagen, Glasgow and Milan. The low-cost carrier said cancellations were being made “in advance to give customers the ability to rebook on to alternative flights”.

Long queues have formed at some UK airports over the past week, with many families travelling abroad for the school Easter holidays – often for the first time since the travel restrictions were lifted. Travellers at Manchester airport have faced particularly long waits.

On Monday, Heathrow – which is aiming to hire 12,000 staff to cope with an expected summer holiday boom – admitted that resources were “stretched”, as an increase in bookings created long delays over the Easter holiday period.

“Following a very weak January and February, passenger numbers in March were the highest since the start of the pandemic, following the government’s removal of all travel restrictions, making the UK the first country in the world to do so,” the airport said.

“The aviation sector has been rebuilding capacity ahead of a summer peak, so resources are stretched. Heathrow is working closely with airlines and ground handlers to make sure this increase in demand can be met while keeping passengers safe.”

Heathrow said that demand was being driven by weekend and school holiday trips as the public “make the most of the freedom to travel and cash in vouchers from trips cancelled during Covid”.

Heathrow was used by 4.2 million travellers in March, a 675% increase over the same month last year. In February 2020, the month before the onset of the pandemic resulted in the government implementing travel restrictions, it was used by 5.4 million.

In the year to the end of March, total passenger numbers hit 27.3 million, an almost 200% increase over the previous 12 months. The airport has forecast 45 million passengers this year, just over half of pre-pandemic levels.

However, the airport said holiday and business travel from foreign countries remained weak because of high Covid levels in the UK and the requirement to test before returning home.

Last month, Heathrow said it was embarking on a recruitment drive to cope with a travel boom that would result in some days at the airport returning to almost pre-pandemic passenger levels. However, the airport said it would feel significantly busier because of additional pre-departure checks.

“Half of global markets still require Covid checks including testing, vaccination status and quarantine, which is causing particular congestion in check-in areas at peak times,” the airport said on Monday.

“Heathrow is advising passengers to check with their airline to confirm when they should get to the airport. Other airport processes are currently working to plan and Heathrow is working with Border Force to ensure sufficient levels of resource are in place to cope with the large number of passengers returning to the UK over the next couple of weeks.”

Heathrow, which intends to reopen Terminal 4 before July, said last month that it was “particularly concerned over Border Force’s ability to scale up to meet demand” for the summer crowds. Failures in passport e-gates as well as additional Covid requirements have at times caused long queues in the immigration halls.

“It is fantastic to see the airport coming back to life after two years, and I want to thank all team Heathrow colleagues for working together to serve our passengers,” said John Holland-Kaye, the chief executive of Heathrow. “Everyone at Heathrow is doing everything we can to make sure passengers get on their way as smoothly and safely as possible.”

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As the aviation industry recovers, passengers are facing fare increases after the Civil Aviation Authority approved a 37% rise in landing charges at Heathrow from January. The interim increase, from £22 to £30.19 a passenger, was less than the airport was seeking but nevertheless outraged airlines.

Willie Walsh, a former chief executive of the parent company of British Airways who now leads the International Air Transport Association, accused Heathrow of “gouging” its customers.

Last year, Holland-Kaye said between 15,000 and 25,000 jobs had been lost across the airport, including airline partners such as British Airways, in the first year of the pandemic.


Mark Sweney

The GuardianTramp

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