UK airport disruptions ease after passenger caps and flight cancellations

The travel disruption that gripped UK airports this summer has eased in recent weeks after unprecedented passenger caps were imposed and airlines cancelled thousands of flights to cope with widespread staff shortages.

Just 0.34 per cent of flights from UK airports were cancelled in the first week of August, compared with more than 5 per cent in the last week of June, according to figures from aviation data company OAG.

The proportion of cancelled flights has steadily trended lower since mid-July, indicating that the industry has managed to restore some resilience to its operations in time for the peak summer holiday rush.

Heathrow airport said on Thursday its decision to impose a passenger cap “has delivered improvements to passenger experience”, including fewer last-minute cancellations, better punctuality and improvements to previously chaotic baggage delivery.

“Passengers are seeing better, more reliable journeys since the introduction of the demand cap,” said Heathrow’s chief executive John Holland-Kaye.

Column chart of Percentage of flights to and from UK airports that were cancelled showing Flight disruption has eased in recent weeks

But greater stability has come at a significant reputational and financial cost to the industry.

Heathrow last month limited the number of passengers able to use the airport to 100,000 a day, down from 104,000 originally scheduled for the summer. The cap will remain in place until at least September 11.

Gatwick, the UK’s second busiest airport, has imposed similar restrictions.

Heathrow’s move was criticised by airlines including Emirates, while British Airways responded by suspending short-haul ticket sales from the airport.

BA and other airlines including easyJet were also forced to cancel thousands of flights earlier this summer, after concluding industry-wide staffing problems meant they would be unable to fulfil their planned schedules.

BA cut 13 per cent of its schedule and has already repaid £15mn to customers through refunds, but owner International Airlines Group still forecast a full-year profit. Low-cost carrier easyJet outlined a £133mn “cost impact from disruption” in its most recent results.

Heathrow said 6.3mn people had used the airport in July, up from 1.5mn in the same month a year ago when Covid-19 measures restricted air travel. About 7.75mn passengers travelled through Heathrow in July 2019, before the pandemic struck.

The airport said it seen had “the largest rise in passenger numbers of any European airport in the last year”, and estimated that 16mn people would use the hub between July and September.

Manchester Airports Group — which owns Manchester, London Stansted and East Midlands airports — said 5.5mn passengers travelled through its terminals in July, and also reported easing disruption.

Manchester airport emerged as a particular focus of travel disruption following chaotic scenes during school half-term in the late spring, but MAG said “operational performance . . . continues to improve” with 99 per cent of passengers clearing security in less than 30 minutes in the first week of August.

“The sector has come a long way since the spring,” said Tim Alderslade, chief executive of industry group Airlines UK. “We’re a competitive industry and there will always be commercial tensions but it shows what we can do when we all come together.”

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