Richard Branson urges Heathrow not to limit Christmas flights

Strong dollar and end of Covid restrictions lead to huge boom in travel from US to UK, Virgin and Delta say

Delta Air Lines has hailed “unprecedented” demand for transatlantic travel to the UK, while its co-owner of Virgin Atlantic, Sir Richard Branson, warned he would be “really pissed off” if Heathrow imposed further restrictions on capacity at Christmas.

The strong dollar and the end of Covid restrictions will fuel inbound travel for three years but capacity at Britain’s biggest airport remains a concern, according to Virgin’s owners.

Ed Bastian, the chief executive of Delta, which owns 49% of Virgin Atlantic, said: “The demand to travel, because it wasn’t available for so long, is like nothing we’ve ever seen, and it’s not stopping.

“The level of demand to the UK is truly unprecedented … We have so many Americans, all demographics, who haven’t been able to travel for three years: baby boomers who have a bucket list, businesses that need to get back to colleagues.

“There’s no way you’ll satisfy that in a six- to nine-month time frame, it’ll take two to three years. Then you couple that with the dollar [strength]. In Europe, all you see are Americans.

“London is on sale. I was over there a few weeks ago and having a hard time keeping my partner out of the shops.”

Transatlantic flights now form about 60-70% of Virgin’s route network and are also the most lucrative source of income for carriers such as British Airways.

The rebound in international travel in 2022 exceeded Heathrow’s forecasts, and a boom in US tourists has played a significant part in re-establishing its spot as Europe’s busiest hub, despite the cap on passenger numbers in the summer.

Heathrow angered many airlines, particularly Emirates, when it imposed the 100,000 departing passengers a day limit to head off last-minute cancellations or delays at the airport, after chaotic scenes at peak periods earlier in the year.

The cap has been lifted but Heathrow said it may have to impose a mechanism at Christmas retiming flights to manage the festive rush. It said the move was largely necessary because of airlines not having sourced enough ground handling staff.

However, Branson rejected that claim. He told the Guardian: “I’d be extremely upset if [Heathrow] haven’t got their act together before Christmas. They’ve had a lot of time to get sorted – I’d be really pissed off if there were capacity cuts.

“We’ve got not issues on staffing; we’re fully staffed and have been for some time. There’s plenty of people out there who want to come and work for a decent company, and they’ve got to attract the people.”

Bastian and Branson were speaking after the inaugural flight of Virgin Atlantic’s daily service to Tampa International from London Heathrow, on which the Guardian travelled. The new service, starting commercially on Thursday, will mean Virgin operates up to seven daily flights to Florida airports alone in the summer.

• The Guardian’s journey to Tampa was paid for by Virgin Atlantic


Gwyn Topham Transport correspondent

The GuardianTramp

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