What went wrong at Heathrow? The airport that confidently laid out expansion plans and charged its customers a hefty premium has repeatedly suffered the kind of chaos people pay to avoid: flight cancellations, long queues, mountains of luggage lost and strike threats. Now, at the start of the full peak of summer, he has told airlines to turn away passengers.
In a week when baking temperatures have swept across Britain, few places have felt the heat more. Heathrow’s own posters highlighting ‘the elephant in the room’ – aviation’s contribution to climate change – have never seemed more relevant as mercury hit a record 40.2C in the airport, the grass between its runways parched a desert brown.
Last week, Heathrow announced a cap of 100,000 passengers a day until September 11, infuriating airlines and jeopardizing the plans of thousands of customers. The airport insisted it was ‘protecting the holiday’ but the response was fierce. Emirates initially flatly refused to comply or cancel flights. In some of the mildest invective, Willie Walsh, the chief executive of Iata – and an old enemy of the management of British Airways and its parent group, IAG – described Heathrow as “a bunch of idiots when it comes to is to manage the airports”.
Anxious Storm Clouds of Passengers
Inside the airport terminals this week, the line between extremely busy and frenetic was thin. At least, however, the air conditioning was working. In a late morning lull in Terminal 5, it didn’t look like chaos. “Give it a few hours,” a BA staff member told the waiting lines, smiling, a light sweat breaking through. “It comes and goes… Just randomly.”
The turmoil in the airline industry continues: huge queues are growing with anxious passengers arriving earlier and earlier for flights. Wider travel disruption doesn’t help: Sitting with a laptop and luggage in Pret, a seasoned traveler said he arrived nine hours before his flight to Australia, after warning the heat could interrupt the trains he needed for the airport.
The adjacent Terminal 2 is Heathrow’s most modern addition – opened in 2014 with the optimistic aim of passengers getting to and from the plane in minutes, without traditional check-in lanes. Now, however, a man in a suit was patiently explaining to customers that despite checking in online, they still had to enter the intimidating United Airlines queue to comply with US security procedures.
All around, various staff – in airline livery, high-vis vests or pink “Heathrow helpers” polo shirts – gather incoming groups that appear and disperse like rumbling storm clouds.
Post-Covid restrictions, with business travel declining, fewer and fewer passengers are likely to be mobile, unencumbered, tech-savvy frequent flyers. Many here don’t speak English, with large amounts of luggage; old, young, infirm, facing confusing layouts, requests for QR codes and additional Covid documentation, and needing assistance of all kinds.
And while the terminals may seem chaotic, the worst problems have been on the airside. Today, delays are relatively minor, but the arrivals board now has an additional feature in addition to a flight’s landing time: whether their baggage has been delivered or is arriving. While BA’s flight from Kuwait landed more than 90 minutes ago, the bags have yet to reach the carousels.
So cutting passenger numbers by just a few thousand can make a huge difference to those traveling, according to Heathrow chief executive John Holland-Kaye, defiant in Terminal 5 on Tuesday after mounting speculation about its future. “We are acting with the cap to protect people’s holidays. We have 100,000 passengers traveling today, it’s the hottest day we’ve ever had and the airport is running well. It shows that the measures we take, in difficult circumstances, are working.
Holland-Kaye said no one wanted a ‘blame game’ but said the overriding factor was the lack of airline ground handling staff – either outsourced – to companies such as Menzies, Swissport or Cobalt – be directly employed. The main effect of the cap will be to limit additional ticket sales, but around 1,500 passengers on the busiest summer days will be forced to change their plans, in addition to the hundreds of thousands already hit by mass cancellations of BA ordered more early this summer.
“The reality is that if the airport, airlines or ground handling services don’t have enough capacity, people won’t get away with their flights much worse: their flights canceled after their recording, maybe even the plane,” Holland-Kaye said. “It’s the worst of all worlds.”
Labor shortages have been compounded by lengthy background checks on new hires and competition from other industries.
Surprisingly, not much is within the direct jurisdiction of the airport except for security guards and the provision of infrastructure. The airlines organize check-in. The immigration hall, the scene of the queues that have made headlines in previous years, is the responsibility of the Home Office and its Border Force employees. While automated baggage systems are (usually) kept in operation by Heathrow, the handlers who put the bags in or take them out are employed or contracted out by the airlines.
Even the people on the tarmac, driving the trucks to bring in the luggage, fixing the air bridges or pushing the planes back from the stand, are the direct or outsourced personnel of the airlines.
“Excessive” returns for shareholders
Airlines, however, report multiple failings at Heathrow: understaffed security which saw long queues at Easter; the unreliable baggage system; and a planning flaw before the cap, introduced at the 11th hour. As Holland-Kaye himself put it, there are 400 separate companies working at the airport, and his role is to “make them all work in tandem.”
As airlines such as BA accepted and cut more and more flights from their schedules to turn the plates, the latest stalemate unfolded amid a bitter row over landing fees. Heathrow had offered to double the price, set by the British regulator, that it can charge airlines per passenger.
It has prompted a furious backlash from carriers who have suffered huge losses and wonder whether Heathrow shareholders – largely Qatar and other sovereign wealth funds – should dig deeper, after hitting £4billion pounds in dividends over the past decade.
Heathrow’s ever-growing debt, up to £15.4billion at last count, has funded investments that directly increase returns as they build, within the regulatory system. Airlines view it as enjoying an enviable stable position – or as Virgin Atlantic chief executive Shai Weiss put it: ‘abusing its monopoly position to defraud passengers and offer excessive returns to shareholders’ .
At the Farnborough Airshow this week, Walsh said Heathrow was unprepared for the strength of the recovery due to its own pessimistic forecasts, which he said needed to ‘play’ regulator to allow it to increase landing fees. While airlines had spotted a recovery in pent-up demand, Heathrow played it down. Holland-Kaye denies the accusation, saying the airlines should have hired more managers sooner if they expected the rebound.
The blame game seems to have some way to go – and so do the problems. Holland-Kaye says it will take 12 to 18 months to resolve staffing issues. The cap might not be lifted mid-term or at Christmas, he hinted: “They have about 70% of the staff trying to serve about 80-85% of the passengers and it’s not working.”