Queues for security checks spill out beyond the barriers as a line snakes across one of Heathrow’s departure halls.
Despite the relatively quiet period on a weekday afternoon, passengers are still facing long waits — an ominous sign as a surge in bookings over Christmas and the new year coincides with strikes, threatening to disrupt travel at one of the busiest times of the year.
The walkout by passport control officials this Friday for more than a week raises fears of more flight delays and long queues at Britain’s busiest airport, only months after this summer’s travel chaos.
Executives from the airport, airlines and government have been meeting to ensure the disruption is limited, and are optimistic most passengers will not be hit.
But they have warned that some disruption — most likely in the form of long queues at arrivals for people who cannot pass through electronic passport gates — is inevitable.
“We are doing everything we can to protect full operating schedules on Border Force strike days,” Heathrow chief executive John Holland-Kaye said.
He added that departing passengers and “the vast majority” of arrivals should be unaffected by the walkout by passport controllers, who are in dispute with the government rather than the airport.
Heathrow has forecast just under 6mn passengers will pass through the airport in December, down from 6.6mn in December 2019, just before the pandemic hit.
The seasonal rush will pose the first test for the airport since this summer’s disruption, the end of a difficult year that saw Heathrow impose a controversial cap on passenger numbers to try to control queues.
Nigel Wicking, chief executive of the Heathrow Airline Operators’ Committee (AOC), which represents the carriers, said the threat of passenger controls over Christmas and the new year was lifted only after protests. The airport had signalled it might restore them in late October.
From July to October, Heathrow operated a 100,000 daily cap on passenger numbers to ease strains on baggage handlers and curb the hours-long security queues.
Heathrow insists the summer disruption was largely caused by airlines’ failure to employ enough baggage handlers, a charge Holland-Kaye fired at the carriers earlier this year.
That prompted a fierce counterblast from the airlines, which say the airport’s inadequate recruitment of security staff was more to blame.
“I think allowing John Holland-Kaye to point his finger at the airlines and say it was all the airlines’ fault was unacceptable because it was not the airlines’ fault,” said Willie Walsh, head of the International Air Transport Association, at the Airlines 2022 conference in November.
He added that “heads should roll” if the airport suffered similar problems in summer 2023 to those this year.
AOC’s Wicking complained that applications for security passes were still not being handled “at the right pace”.
Fears of more travel disruption have also reopened a fierce debate between the airlines and the airport over the speed of recovery and how many people are likely to pass through the UK’s busiest airport.
Airlines accuse the airport of deliberately downplaying the strength of the post-pandemic recovery.
Carriers say a slow recovery could lead to higher airport fees, paid by the airlines, to ensure its costs are covered. The regulator, the Civil Aviation Authority, is currently reviewing the level of fees.
Virgin Atlantic, one of the airport’s biggest customers, in October accused the airport of using a “deliberately pessimistic” forecast.
It pointed out that Heathrow’s initial estimate for full-year passenger traffic — of 45mn passengers — was nearly passed in just the first nine months.
More than 55mn people passed through the airport between January and November, up from just 16.3mn in 2021.
Edmond Rose, an aviation consultant, said passenger numbers were recovering more quickly than Heathrow had forecast.
“The airport has submitted that there would be 65.2mn passengers next year — clearly an underestimate against current traffic,” he said. Rose has forecast more than 70mn passengers next year.
Heathrow, owned by investors including Spain’s Ferrovial and Qatar’s sovereign wealth fund, stands by its forecasts and denies they have anything to do with the fee debate or regulatory issues.
It insists it is performing as well as can be expected, given that the 400 companies working on its site shed 25,000 of their 75,000 pre-coronavirus staff during the pandemic.
While about 13,000 people have been recruited, another 12,000 need to be taken on and, in many cases, vetted and issued with security passes.
Many of the staff laid off during the pandemic have exploited the current tight labour market to move to new, more attractive jobs.
“We consider the representations of Heathrow airport and the airlines, who have differing views to each other about the future level of charges,” the CAA said. “But we will continue to make decisions in the best interest of consumers.”
However, some customers view the airport’s difficulties as a straightforward consequence of the sharp post-coronavirus turnround in demand.
Marjan Rintel, chief executive of KLM, the Netherlands’ national airline, said flights were still being cancelled as recently as last December because of fears about the Omicron variant of Covid-19.
Pre-pandemic levels of passenger demand then returned almost immediately, in the spring and summer.
KLM’s main hub airport, Amsterdam’s Schiphol, has also suffered severe disruption and still has a cap on passenger numbers, which Heathrow has used as evidence that it has fared no worse than peers.
“They really lacked staff in June, with the big baggage issues,” Rintel said of Heathrow. “So that was really painful.”
Heathrow said the current year had been “a challenging one” for the global aviation industry.
“As our passengers would expect, our current focus is on collaborating so that we can jointly deliver the first proper Christmas getaway in three years, and continuing to build back capacity ahead of next spring and summer,” the airport said.
However, some are cautiously optimistic that renewed co-operation between the airport and its customers might avoid a repetition of the summer disruption.
AOC’s Wicking said: “We want to help them [Heathrow], work with them [on security] to get that in the right place, to get more people in.”
Additional reporting by Phil Georgiadis