It's official: Heathrow’s controversial passenger cap will last until late October

Aug. 16, 2022
5 min read
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London's Heathrow Airport (LHR) has officially extended its 100,000-passenger-per-day cap until late October as it continues to struggle with the return of travel following the lifting of COVID-19-related restrictions.

The hobbled hub had planned to end the cap on Sept. 11. However, after reports that Heathrow chiefs were looking to buy more time to fix their issues, an extension became official Tuesday.

The passenger limit will now last until Oct. 29 — overlapping with the autumn half-term break for most schools.

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Britain's busiest airport implemented the limit in July because an uptick in travel put much of the airline industry in distress.

As millions of vacationers scrambled to get away for the first time in two years, airports creaked under their weight; this led to to flight delays, cancellations, long security lines, strikes and luggage handling meltdowns.

Airlines blame Heathrow

Heathrow blames an industrywide staffing shortage for the chaos. Airlines, on the other hand, blame Heathrow for failing to sufficiently prepare for the surge in travel demand after COVID-19 restrictions were lifted in March.

By far, representatives from Emirates have been the most vocal toward the airport; the company accused Heathrow of unleashing an "airmageddon" on the sector, branding the limits "entirely unreasonable and unacceptable."

An Emirates Airbus A380 prepares to land at Heathrow Airport. (Photo by Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg/Getty Images)

"[London Heathrow] chose not to act, not to plan, not to invest," the airline said in July. "Now faced with an 'airmageddon' situation due to their incompetence and non-action, they are pushing the entire burden — of costs and the scramble to sort the mess — to airlines and travellers."

On Tuesday, Virgin Atlantic expressed disappointment at the extension. "We are disappointed that Heathrow Airport has already decided to extend the passenger capacity cap until the end of October, as additional resources come on line every week and the airport experience improves," a spokesperson said. "Airline customers have a right to expect their bookings will be honoured and we're doing everything in our power to minimise disruption, getting our customers to where they need to be smoothly."

Meanwhile, Ryanair, which does not fly from Heathrow, used the announcement as an opportunity to stick the boot into the troubled airport; the airline touted the 500 new routes it has added at London Stansted Airport (STN) for the October half-term school holiday.

"While hopeless Heathrow continues to mismanage air travel, Ryanair and London Stansted will continue to grow and deliver for London families, the way we have through all of summer 2022," Ryanair CEO Michael O’Leary said.

He said Ryanair and Stansted have "more than sufficient staff" to handle the additional flights.

Ryanair CEO Michael O'Leary used the announcement as an opportunity to tout the 500 new routes his airline has added at London Stansted. (Photo by Gerard Julien/Getty Images)

Feedback from others

The cap extension will likely have less impact on vacation plans in the fall than it has had throughout the summer. There will probably be fewer passengers once school starts up again, meaning normal passenger numbers may not even reach the cap on some days.

However, consumer rights group Which? said the extension will nevertheless be a source of anxiety for many — especially for families hoping to travel in October. Describing the situation as "a mess," the group's travel editor Guy Hobbs urged the airport to provide clarity to vacationers about the flight schedule.

“Heathrow and impacted airlines must act without delay to provide travelers with clarity on which flights are being cut, and airlines must ensure affected passengers are aware of their rights to rebooking or refunds," he said. “The aviation industry and the government need to ensure that this mess is sorted out as soon as possible – passenger caps cannot be allowed to continue indefinitely.”

Related: British Airways has ended its short-haul ticket freeze from Heathrow

Heathrow said the cap has been working, leading to “fewer last-minute cancellations” and “shorter waits for bags.”

It added that the cap “could be lifted earlier [than Oct. 29] should there be a sustained picture of better resilience and a material increase in resourcing levels.”

“Our primary concern is ensuring we give our passengers a reliable service when they travel," Heathrow chief commercial officer Ross Baker said.

Related: Heathrow’s ‘baggage mountain’ affects 15,000 passengers

Cabin crew members arrive at Heathrow’s Terminal 5 in 2021. (Photo by Tolga Akmen/Getty Images)

“That’s why we introduced temporary capacity limits in July which have already improved journeys during the summer getaway," he said. "We want to remove the cap as soon as possible, but we can only do so when we are confident that everyone operating at the airport has the resources to deliver the service our passengers deserve.”

While Heathrow officials hope an additional month of capped flights will give them more space and time to fix the system, it’s fair to say the Department for Transport and the Civil Aviation Authority aren’t on board.

In a joint letter to Heathrow’s CEO John Holland-Kaye last month, they asked why "Heathrow has determined that 100,000 departing passengers per day provide a safe and resilient airport with a positive passenger experience."

They also asked those on the ground at the London air hub to “develop a credible and resilient capacity recovery plan for the next six months” and prepare themselves for “weather shocks” and the arrival of the school holidays.

Featured image by Featured photo by Getty images.
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