Passengers at Heathrow will not face major disruption this summer despite an industry-wide international labour crisis that could take 18 months to resolve, the airport’s chief executive has said.
It comes as Gatwick Airport announced it is limiting its number of daily flights to 825 in July and 850 in August to help passengers “experience a more reliable and better standard of service” after a review of its operations.
Travellers at airports across the UK faced significant disruption to flights during a chaotic half-term week culminating in the Jubilee weekend, sparking concern that summer holidays next month could bring similar delays.
John Holland-Kaye, chief executive of Heathrow, told Sky News that Heathrow’s passengers had faced only minor delays, and defended the industry against criticism of its failure to cope with the return of traveller demand after two years of COVID lockdowns.
He said: “We should not be surprised at the challenge faced by the aviation industry.
“For two years most politicians and the public were calling for borders to be closed and that has had a devastating effect.
“Across the sector, very skilled jobs have been lost and it does mean that as an industry we are having to recruit people back, train them up again to be able to serve passengers, and that just takes time.
“It’s very easy to slam the brakes on the industry, lead to enormous job losses, but much harder to scale it up again.”
He stressed that this isn’t just a UK-only issue.
“Across Europe, there were 250,000 people employed as ground handlers before the pandemic. Today it’s something like 120,000 employed, so you can see the scale of recruitment that’s required.”
Staff shortages in airport ground services – including baggage handling, security and cleaning, as well as among airline flight crew – were the chief cause of disruption that saw hundreds of flights cancelled at short notice.
Heathrow boss ‘confident’ about summer travel
Mr Holland-Kaye said he was confident staff would be in place to cope with the summer rush at Britain’s busiest airport.
“The largest team of people are the security officers and we will have as many people in security this summer as before the pandemic,” he said. “But we are only one small part of a very complex chain of companies that make sure you can check on to your flight.
“The biggest number of people are employed by the ground handling companies: they’re the people who check your bags, make sure the plane is clean, and that is where the biggest job losses have been in the past few years.
“That’s where we are focused on making sure we have enough people to serve passengers and that’s where the problems have been at other airports.”
Why is there travel chaos at UK airports and how long could it go on for?
He warned it could take more than a year for labour challenges to be resolved.
“It will take 12 to 18 months for the industry to get all of its capacity back to where it was before the pandemic, and that’s not just in the UK but across Europe as well,” he said.
“We are affected by staffing issues at other airports around the world, so this isn’t quick.
“But provided we plan ahead, match supply and demand, we will be okay.
“So if you’re booked at Heathrow we will get you on your way.
“Don’t turn up too early, make sure you get your laptops and liquids out of your bag in good time, and if you do that everything will be okay.”
Gatwick’s summer flights
Gatwick said the reduction in daily flights would allow airlines to manage more predictable timetables and help the ground handling companies during the school holidays, adding that the vast majority of scheduled flights this summer will operate as normal.
Its airport review found that a number of companies based at Gatwick are continuing to operate with a severe lack of staff resources over the summer holiday period.
Chief executive Stewart Wingate said: “Gatwick prepared well for the restart of international travel by successfully reopening our South Terminal and we have now successfully recruited 400 new colleagues to help us process passengers quickly through security this summer.
“We are also working closely with our airlines to avoid disruption to passengers this summer, and while more newly recruited staff will start work in coming weeks, we know it will be a busy summer.
“However, it is clear that during the Jubilee week a number of companies operating at the airport struggled in particular, because of staff shortages. By taking decisive action now, we aim to help the ground handlers – and also our airlines – to better match their flying programmes with their available resources.”
EasyJet said in a statement: “We are aware of the capacity cap announced by Gatwick Airport and are now reviewing the details to assess what this means for easyJet’s Gatwick operation.
“We recognise the need for Gatwick Airport to do this, as airports across Europe have visibility across all airlines and are well placed to decide what capacity is realistic in the current challenging operating environment, so all airlines can provide reliable services for their customers.
“Given the high frequencies of our services to and from Gatwick, we expect to be able to reaccommodate the majority of customers should their flight be affected by the cap.
“As you would expect, we continue to work with all our partners and continuously reviewing the operation to ensure we deliver for our customers.”