Heathrow’s hopelessness is its faux helplessness

“Hopeless Heathrow” is what Ryanair boss Michael O’Leary dubbed the airport on Tuesday when it extended a summer cap on passenger numbers to the October half term.

O’Leary rarely misses a chance to have a dig at rivals — often rightly. But the passenger cap, introduced in July and lengthened on Monday, is not what makes Heathrow hopeless.

Flight cancellations are down markedly, according to industry data. Punctuality has improved. Baggage delays appear to be easing.

Clearly, there will be some hit from the 100,000 a day departing traveller limit, although few hard financial details are available. Heathrow only earns revenue from passengers when they pass through the airport. However, Emirates’ dire prediction of “airmageddon” when the caps were first announced in July looks wide of the mark.

Most of the industry’s hurt will come not from Heathrow’s cap but the airlines’ self-inflicted capacity cuts. British Airways, Heathrow’s biggest user, trimmed its overall forecasts for the year from 80 per cent of 2019 capacity levels to 78 per cent when it reported earnings a fortnight ago. Break that down and of the 18 per cent cut to May-October flight numbers, only 0.5 percentage points were because of the cap.

The financial impact is not clear-cut either. Analysts argue that a more limited supply of flights for last-minute travellers will, in general, mean higher fares per passenger. Pricing trends for airfares have been firm. A day after the “airmageddon” announcement, Emirates agreed to play nice.

That all said, service has fallen short. If it had not, there would not be a cap in the first place.

Sure, other airports have instituted restrictions: Amsterdam Schiphol, Frankfurt and Gatwick all have similar schemes. But with Heathrow, there is the distinct sense that nothing is ever the airport’s fault.

Resourcing? Its security staff was due to be back to pre-pandemic levels by the end of last month. The shortfall was because of ground handlers “who are contracted by airlines”.

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Poor punctuality? Down to “delays at other airports and airspace congestion across Europe”. Security queues? More leisure travellers who take more luggage and are less aware of travel rules, like what to do with liquids in carry-on.

The passenger limits announced on Monday were made “after consultation with airlines”: a response, perhaps, to a sense that the previous round was imposed on the rest of the industry.

But the fact is that airlines adjusted their schedules to what they thought they could cope with before Heathrow introduced its cap because of a government amnesty scheme that allowed them to hand back slots temporarily. Since the airlines are the ones that hire the ground-handling companies — or in BA’s case, do the ground-handling — you would think they could judge their own flight capacity (although, admittedly, there will be incentives to over-book).

It was only after that exercise that Heathrow instituted its cap, in effect saying that it knew better. It seems more likely that Heathrow knows the limits of its own operations rather than airlines’, which did not buy the excuse in any case. BA’s owner International Airlines Group said bluntly in its latest results presentation to analysts that the capacity cap was “caused by Heathrow Airport Limited security staff shortages”.

There are obviously industry-wide issues, and more than enough blame to go round. But Heathrow’s role as the infrastructure operator is to co-ordinate everyone else involved to make sure it runs smoothly. That is what it belatedly did with the capacity cap. It is what it is doing with a review of ground handling launched last week.

Heathrow says it was not until it hit 100,000 passengers a day that it knew the airport’s network of infrastructure providers could not cope. That should have been anticipated earlier. Airlines started cutting capacity months before it did.

The cap is not what makes Heathrow hopeless. It is its failure as the UK’s flagship airport to take responsibility sooner for the troubles that would unfold both in its terminals and on its Tarmac which rankles.


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