Heathrow Airport limits passengers amid staff shortages, demand

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Not only South Africa is experiencing problems with its air travel. Before Covid-19, Heathrow was the second busiest airport in terms of international travellers after Dubai International Airport. It typically handled between 110,000 and 125,000 departing passengers each day over its summer, but now it’s asked airlines to stop selling tickets as it struggles with staff shortages and surging travel demands. During Covid, many large airlines laid off staff due to lack of demand, but now they need them back – and many have declined to take up the offer. Read the WSJ article below to understand this latest manifestation of the havoc wrought by the pandemic. – Sandra Laurence

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London’s Heathrow Airport Limits Passengers Amid Staff Shortages, Surging Demand

International hub will curb passenger numbers to 100,000 a day and has asked airlines to stop selling tickets for the summer

By Benjamin Katz, Sara Ruberg and Stu Woo

LONDON—Heathrow Airport said it would cap the number of departing passengers from one of Europe’s biggest international hubs and has asked airlines to stop selling new tickets from the airport for the summer season, as it and others struggle with staff shortages and surging travel demand.

The cap on departing passengers follows similar moves at London Gatwick Airport and Amsterdam Schiphol as the industry grapples with a historic surge that has taxed its capacity to handle.

All three airports are usually gateways for Americans heading for often-painstakingly planned European vacations. With the dropping of travel restrictions and higher Covid-19 vaccine rates, this was the first summer that many travelers have felt comfortable enough to make overseas trips since the start of the pandemic.

Before Covid-19, Heathrow was the second-busiest airport in terms of international travelers after Dubai International Airport. It typically handled between 110,000 and 125,000 departing passengers each day over its summer months, according to a spokeswoman for the airport. It operates not just as a trans-Atlantic hub, but as a launchpad for travel across Europe and beyond.

Heathrow said it had assessed the capacity of check-in staff, baggage handlers and other staff before making the decision to cap passenger numbers at 100,000 passengers per day for the rest of the summer. While below pre-pandemic levels, that’s sharply higher than the last two years of travel. Heathrow said it’s seen the same growth over the last four months as it saw over 40 years.

“Over the past few weeks…we have started to see periods when service drops to a level that is not acceptable,” Heathrow Chief Executive John Holland-Kaye said in a statement, citing “Long queue times, delays for passengers requiring assistance, bags not traveling with passengers or arriving late, low punctuality and last-minute cancellations.”

Heathrow said Tuesday on average airlines are currently scheduled to fly 104,000 seats from its runways each day through the summer. Of the 4,000 daily seats in excess of the new cap, about 1,500 have already been sold. Passengers who have bought those tickets will need to be rescheduled, refunded or rerouted. Heathrow said it is asking airlines not to sell the remainder.

“It’s extraordinary by the industry’s historic standards, but it’s not extraordinary by this year’s,” said John Grant, a senior analyst at aviation data firm OAG, who has worked in the industry for over 40 years. “This is symptomatic of the industry’s struggle with resources.”

The cap will be imposed Tuesday and is set to continue through Sept. 11, the airport said. The move comes a day after Heathrow told airlines to cancel 61 flights after higher passenger numbers at two of its terminals exceeded capacity.

Since the start of June, airlines flying from Heathrow have canceled 559 flights within roughly seven days of the scheduled departure, a 299% jump from the number of scrapped flights over the same period in 2019, according to aviation database, FlightAware. The percentage of total flights canceled rose to 1.9% in that same period this year, compared to 0.5% before the pandemic. Of those that took off, 42.4% were delayed, compared to about 29% delayed in the same 2019 span. The average wait time was a bit over 36 minutes, a 33% increase compared to 2019.

Heathrow said this was the first time it has had to impose a cap at such a scale and duration. Across the U.S., Canada and Europe, the aviation industry is scrambling to restore operations to serve a sudden surge in summer travel this year.

The problems have been most severe in Europe. Travel restrictions aimed at curbing the spread of Covid-19 slowed the recovery of European air travel, much of which involves flights between different countries. A stronger U.S. domestic market, meanwhile, has allowed airports there to build up their staff over a longer period before the typically busy summer season.

Heathrow said it has taken various steps to try to ease disruption, including bringing on more customer-service staff to assist passengers at its terminals. It also reopened Terminal 4, where it has shifted 25 airlines to ease some of the long lines at other terminals.

The airport said it had started hiring in November last year and expects by the end of July to have as many staffers working in security—one of the biggest bottlenecks faced by passengers—as it did before the pandemic.

“New colleagues are learning fast but are not yet up to full speed,” Mr. Holland-Kaye said. “However, there are some critical functions in the airport which are still significantly under-resourced, in particular ground handlers.”

That shortfall at Heathrow and other airports has led to a rise in the number of lost bags in recent months, industry executives and analysts say.

Mr. Holland-Kaye said some journeys will be shifted to other days, to different airports or canceled outright, and he apologized to affected customers.

At Heathrow on Tuesday, passengers waited in long lines to check in, drop off baggage and go through security. Schedule boards showed multiple delays and flight cancellations.

To return home from her first-ever international trip by plane, Kristin Karras thought that arriving at Heathrow at noon would be plenty of time for her 3:25 p.m. flight to Salt Lake City. But airport staff wouldn’t let her and her family inside the building for 90 minutes, giving priority to people with earlier flights.

“They were punishing those who came early and rewarding those who came late,” said the 50-year-old nurse from Utah, who was traveling with her husband, teenage son and her son’s friend.

By 2:50 p.m., with about 100 passengers still in front of them, the Karras family was bumped to the front of the baggage drop line. She said she was grateful that the airport staff appeared to be doing the best with their limited resources. “There’s a method to their madness,” she said. “We just don’t know what it is.”

After a computer glitch wasted precious minutes in dropping off their luggage, the family rushed to negotiate their way to the front of the security lines. A small reprieve: the flight had just been delayed by 20 minutes. “My anxiety is a 10,” she said.

At 3.30 p.m., 15 minutes before departure, Ms. Karras made it to the aircraft. “We literally ran to our gate and are boarding plane now. No time to use restroom or grab something to eat,” she said via text. “We are starving and uncomfortable but made it. I tried optimistic but now just feel exhausted.”

Last week, British Airways, which counts Heathrow’s Terminal 5 as its primary base, said it was cutting another 10,300 flights from its summer schedule to ease pressure at the airport, bringing its total cuts since the start of the season to around 30,000 flights. That figure doesn’t include last-minute or operational cancellations.

Other airlines have made similar moves, including Deutsche Lufthansa AG and discount carrier easyJet PLC. KLM Royal Dutch Airlines said Friday it was cutting another 2,000 flights across its network and would stop selling tickets on trips to European destinations to keep seats available for disrupted passengers. Hungarian low-cost carrier Wizz Air Holdings PLC said Monday it would cut 5% of its capacity against its previous plans.

British Airways’ cuts came after the U.K. government eased takeoff slot rules that require airlines to operate a minimum threshold of flights to hold on to lucrative departure times, giving airlines breathing room to make cuts to schedules to reduce pressure on the airport. Heathrow said that while some airlines had made significant reductions, others operating at the terminal had failed to do so, leading it to impose the passenger cap.

Write to Benjamin Katz at [email protected], Sara Ruberg at [email protected] and Stu Woo at [email protected]

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