Heathrow is to hire 12,000 staff to handle an expected summer holiday boom, the UK’s busiest airport has said, as it warned the recovery in the aviation industry is “being overshadowed by war and Covid”.
Passenger numbers at the London hub were almost half pre-pandemic levels last month – and 15% below Heathrow’s own forecast – at only 2.8 million passengers.
“Aviation’s recovery remains overshadowed by war and Covid uncertainty,” said John Holland-Kaye, the chief executive of Heathrow. “But we need to ensure we are geared up to meet peak potential demand this summer.”
Heathrow said that at the busiest times this summer it expects passenger numbers to reach 85% of pre-pandemic levels. But it said the airport would feel significantly busier than that because of additional pre-departure checks, and it needed to embark on a recruitment drive.
“This is higher than current airline, handler and airport capacity,” Heathrow said. “So we are putting passengers first by gearing up across the airport for peak demand, working with airlines to reduce check-in times and recruiting 12,000 new colleagues, as well as reopening terminal 4 before July.”
Heathrow added that it was “particularly concerned over Border Force’s ability to scale up to meet demand” for the summer crowds. Failures in passport e-gates as well as additional Covid requirements have at times caused long queues in the immigration halls.
Its rival London airport, Gatwick, has also predicted a summer surge, with passenger levels returning to 85% of pre-pandemic levels.
It said earlier this week that it expects to serve about 3 million passengers a month this summer, and will reopen its second terminal at the end of March, when British Airways will restart short-haul flights from the airport.
Heathrow, however, warned that the immediate recovery in inbound traveller numbers remained slow because of testing and quarantine requirements in many overseas markets, and the aviation industry faced a host of additional concerns.
“We also face headwinds from higher fuel prices, longer flight times to destinations impacted by airspace closures, concerns from US travellers over war in Europe and the likelihood of new ‘variants of concern’,” the airport said. “Together [these] create huge uncertainty over the passenger forecasts this year.”
Heathrow had a weaker start to the year than anticipated because the Omicron variant dented hopes of an early recovery after a year in which passenger numbers fell to 19.4 million, its lowest level for nearly half a century, and the airport reported a pre-tax loss of £1.8bn.
Heathrow has angered airlines by planning to raise landing charges by more than 50% as it seeks to allay cumulative losses of £3.8bn during the pandemic.
The rise in charges to airlines will typically add less than 2% to passenger air fares, the airport has said, although airlines have denounced the rise at a hub which they say is already the costliest in Europe. Heathrow says the rise in charges, to be approved by the aviation regulator, the CAA, is necessary for urgent investment in screening and baggage systems.