Overwhelmed and understaffed, Heathrow Airport says it cannot guarantee safe and reliable operations without massive cuts to the number of passengers passing through. The airport proposed a cap of 100,000 departing passengers per day for the remainder of the summer to alleviate pressures. And at least one airline is refusing to cooperate.
The caps represent a 21-26% drop in the total available capacity at the airport compared to what airlines previously planned, according to schedule data from Cirium. And while airlines rarely operate every flight at 100% capacity, the caps would almost certainly require some passengers to be displaced, as the demand came with just 36 hours’ notice.
For its part, Emirates is not planning to honor the request. In a scathing rebuke of Heathrow’s request, the airline calls the demands “highly regrettable” and suggests the target number was “plucked from thin air.” Moreover, the airline objects to Heathrow dictating passenger counts on specific flights for each airline.
“This is entirely unreasonable and unacceptable, and we reject these demands… Until further notice, Emirates plans to operate as scheduled to and from LHR.”– Emirates statement
Emirates also notes that its catering and ground handling is managed by its dnata subsidiary, which is “fully ready and capable of handling our flights. So the crux of the issue lies with the central services and systems which are the responsibility of the airport operator.”
For its part, Heathrow claims 40 years of passenger growth occurred in just four months. And it is true that until earlier in 2022 passenger levels were significantly depressed, in large part due to COVID-mitigation limitations around the globe. But the passenger numbers the airport is seeing should not be a surprise.
In November 2021 airlines filed schedules accommodating 65 million seats in and out of Heathrow over the Summer 2022 season (~152k departing seats per day, on average). In March 2022, schedules firmed, with 64.6 million seats on offer. Airlines continued to trim schedules since then, down to an average of 125,000 daily departing seats this summer in the current filings. But none of these numbers are a surprise.
Beyond Emirates’ objections to the cuts, the slot regulators issued guidance earlier this week that further complicates the situation.
By almost every metric, cancelling some flights and operating the remaining as normal is the smarter choice. Lower airline operating staff requirements will help contribute to the savings. And reducing the number of overall movements at Heathrow means things should be more on time than not.
But the slots operate on a use-it-or-lose-it basis. Typically an airline must operate 80% of the allocated slots or risk losing them for the following year. Heathrow allowed for a slightly lower usage level this season, but the expectation is that airlines will run their full complement of planned operations.
Those same regulators could have offered additional relief, allowing airlines to cancel flights outright rather that operating the existing schedule with artificial capacity caps. It chose to not do so. They are, in effect, demanding smaller and/or less full planes – both less efficient – operate.
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