August 17, 2022

This is turning out to be an unprecedented summer of travel, and both airlines and airports are struggling to deal with the increase in demand. Heathrow Airport, one of Europe’s busiest hubs, has realized that more needs to be done to reduce the number of travelers.

The airport has now gone so far as to add a daily passenger cap, and to ask airlines to stop selling tickets for the rest of summer.

Heathrow has more passengers than it can handle

John Holland-Kaye, the CEO of Heathrow, has written an open letter about what the airport needs to do in order to manage the passenger experience over the next couple of months.

Heathrow Airport has seen the number of daily travelers exceeding 100,000 in recent weeks, and this has caused a drop in service levels that the airport operator no longer finds acceptable. Specifically, Heathrow is experiencing long queue times, delays for passengers requiring assistance, bags not traveling with passengers or arriving late, low punctuality, and last minute cancelations.

This is primarily attributed to the number of travelers exceeding the combined capacity of airlines, airline ground handlers, and the airport. The airport claims that it has seen 40 years of passenger growth in just four months. I’d argue that’s a bit disingenuous, but I get the point.

While the airport started recruiting for more staff back in November 2021, that’s not an instant process, and there’s a general challenge with getting workers. It’s claimed that by the end of July, Heathrow will have as many people working in security as pre-pandemic. However, that might not be enough, and similarly, more workers are needed in other functions as well, especially ground handlers.

Heathrow claims that the current number of travelers is putting at risk the safety and wellbeing of staff, so it’s time to take action.

Heathrow Airport has more travelers than it can handle

Heathrow adds passenger cap, asks airlines to stop selling tickets

What’s Heathrow doing to manage its lack of reliability? The airport is adding new passenger caps for the remainder of the summer travel period, which is between July 12 and September 11, 2022. Specifically:

  • The airport can handle an average of at most 100,000 passengers per day while providing a decent experience
  • The latest forecast shows that without further intervention, Heathrow will see an average of 104,000 travelers per day
  • Heathrow believes that an average of 101,500 seats have already been sold to passengers for the remainder of summer, meaning airlines have sold more tickets than the airport can accommodate
  • As a result, Heathrow has asked airlines to stop selling summer tickets to & from the airport, to limit the impact on passengers

While Heathrow is asking airlines to stop selling tickets, I don’t think we’ll actually see that happen. Often last minute tickets are the most expensive, and airlines don’t want to give up that revenue. Airlines want to operate flights more efficiently, so I think it’s much more likely that we see airlines cut frequencies rather than just no longer selling flights that aren’t booked out.

I would imagine airlines are being given more specific guidance about what they need to do beyond just this open letter. I’d imagine the instructions aren’t actually to stop selling seats, but rather to take whatever steps they can to cap the total number of people they’re carrying.

I doubt airlines will actually stop selling tickets

Bottom line

Heathrow Airport has acknowledged that it can’t handle the number of travelers forecasted to travel through the airport in the next couple of months. The airport is anticipating an average of 104,000 daily travelers, and believes that an average of 101,500 daily travelers are currently booked.

The airport is asking airlines to cap travelers at an average of 100,000 per day. While the request is to stop selling tickets, I doubt that’s how this will play out in practice.

What do you make of Heathrow’s attempt to cap passenger numbers?

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