The purpose of aviation is to connect the people of planet Earth. Heathrow Airport aims to “give passengers the best airport service in the world”. He makes money by allowing as many people to fly as possible. So suppressing the number of travelers who can avail of its services is one of the weirdest aspects of the increasingly weird summer of 2022.
To refresh your memory: three weeks ago, Heathrow suddenly imposed a limit of 100,000 departing passengers a day. That’s 4,000 fewer than the average number of daily reservations to leave the airport during the summer and over 20,000 fewer available seats.
Given that the world, his wife, his extended family and assorted parasites seem to want to fly this summer, you would expect many of those 20,000 seats to be purchased, many on short notice.
Instead, Heathrow is doing what it can to reduce the number of people who park their cars, drink coffee and spend in high season duty-free shops. And airlines have stopped selling these immensely lucrative last-minute tickets.
Heathrow has lost billions during the coronavirus pandemic, but is prepared to forgo revenues to achieve an elusive destination: resilience.
The damage to the consumer is significant: choice is reduced and tariffs are painfully high. For example, on Flybe from Heathrow to Belfast City, a route on which British Airways ceased sales until 16 August, £300 was the starting price for the trip on 3 August.
So what’s going on with Heathrow?
“In recent weeks, the airport has struggled to cope with the increase in passenger volumes beyond the collective ability of companies across the airport to serve them,” reads its latest announcement.
“This has resulted in an unacceptable increase in delays in getting planes on their feet, bags that do not travel with passengers or are delivered too late to the luggage room, poor departure punctuality and some flights canceled after passengers boarded.
“That’s why we’ve introduced a cap on the number of passengers departing daily. The cap has slightly reduced the number of passengers, bringing them into line with available resources and, as a result, is already resulting in better and more reliable travel for passengers.”
The airport is not shy about pointing the finger: “Heathrow is keen to get back to operating without limit as soon as possible, but that is up to teams across the airport, particularly some airline ground handlers, to reach sufficient resource levels. ”
Passengers could also do more: Heathrow estimates that four person-years were wasted in July alone at security checkpoints because travelers – perhaps out of practice – carried too much liquid in their hand luggage.
Part of the airline’s thinking with the provisional lifting of the departure limit on September 12, I suppose, is that business travelers – the professionals – will be back, with fewer unlucky tourists to disrupt the executive squadron’s power through the pursuit of area security.
The British Airways executive team, I imagine, is feeling relieved. BA over-promised with its initial summer Heathrow schedule, then made tens of thousands of flight cancellations to align with its resources – and still manages to keep all of its slots for next summer.
Even now, the airline is overloaded – so the Heathrow limit is not inconvenient. Fares seem punitive: I booked a BA flight from Barcelona in late August which cost me £300.
Is this the future: high prices and lingering uncertainty? I doubt it. Everyone is a loser in this weird summer. Passengers are evidently prepared to pay much more than they did before the coronavirus pandemic, which should generate higher wages and attract good people to aviation.
With some trepidation, I predict that it will all be over by Christmas – and that with the New Year, commercial hostilities can resume. For the benefit of all of us.