Possible Christmas passenger cap risks recovery setback for Heathrow

GlobalData predicts that international air travel will not recover to pre-pandemic levels until 2024 at the earliest.

London Heathrow Airport has announced that there is a potential for the reintroduction of the passenger cap if demand surpasses levels that can be serviced by the airport’s current level of operation.

Officials have suggested that, if needed, during peak winter travel times the passenger cap could potentially be reintroduced, but only as a last resort as despite the success of the summer passenger cap in easing operational issues, it negatively impacted revenue, consumer relations, and Heathrow’s relationship with airlines.

Covid-19 and traveller caps have impacted traveller numbers

Currently the cap on passengers is set to be removed at the end of October, however, if there is too much pressure on the airport over the peak Christmas period this cap could be reintroduced.

According to GlobalData’s demands and flows database, in 2019 before Covid-19 there were 31.4 million international arrivals by air into the UK and 73.4 million departures by air from the UK. In 2021 these numbers were a fraction of that, at 5.5 million and 13.1 million respectively.

GlobalData also predicts that international air travel will not recover to pre-pandemic levels until 2024 at the earliest. These figures are likely to be exacerbated by traveller caps being reintroduced.

A GlobalData survey saw that 52% of global respondents valued accessibility when deciding on where to go on holiday, and the delays and queues caused by the breakdown in passenger service at the airport are likely to negatively impact consumer opinion.

Heathrow is considering a cap over the Christmas period, but only as a last resort

Heathrow airport reported that it established a recruitment taskforce to help fill vacancies, and that it was working with the UK Government on a review of airline ground handling, after passengers had to wait for hours for their luggage during the summer holidays.

The airport said passenger service levels fell in July when demand outstripped the airport’s capacity, but they improved after the introduction of the daily cap, which aimed to improve punctuality and reduce last-minute cancellations. Heathrow was hit by severe disruptions that affected airports across the country in the May half-term and early summer, as travelers faced long security queues and baggage system breakdowns.

The cap helped to balance supply and demand and meant the vast majority of passengers travelling through Heathrow over the summer had a very good experience. The airport said it was working with airlines to develop more targeted ways of ensuring passenger service during peak travel periods.

While the cap on passenger numbers was a necessary move for Heathrow in order to maintain a higher quality of service for travellers using the airport, having the possibility of its reintroduction looming during the upcoming holiday period is likely to affect consumer confidence.

Such a move would likely heighten passenger concerns over the uncertainty of their flights being affected by late scheduling changes. An alternative that has been discussed by Heathrow is the retiming of flights from morning peak time, when most passengers prefer to get away, to quieter afternoon slots if the airport needs to manage the festive travel rush.