Heathrow Stretches Capacity Cap Through Summer Season

LHR has now launched a review of its airline ground handling.

Credit: London Heathrow Airport

London Heathrow Airport (LHR) has extended its daily capacity cap for a further seven weeks, citing continuing staff shortages among ground support companies. 

The cap, which limits departing passengers to 100,000 per day, has been in place since July and was initially planned to end Sept. 11, once the summer holiday peak is over. The extension, until Oct. 29, takes the limitation through to the end of airlines’ summer timetables. It will hit the English schools’ mid-term holiday break period. 

“The capacity limits will be kept under regular review and could be lifted earlier should there be a sustained picture of better resilience and a material increase in resourcing levels, notably at some airline ground handlers, which remains a core constraint on capacity,” the airport said Aug. 15.  

Heathrow said last week that the cap was improving the situation at the airport, which saw major delays in handling passengers earlier in the spring and summer, initially at security checkpoints for departing travelers and later in returning checked luggage to arriving passengers because of a shortage of baggage-handling staff. 

The capacity cap led to angry words between the airport and airlines using the London hub, with each blaming the other for the problems.  

Airlines have had to cut back the number of tickets they sell for flights, at what should be one of their most profitable periods of the year. In some cases, flights have had to be canceled and consolidated, particularly on short-haul routes with multiple daily departures.  

“We are disappointed that Heathrow Airport has already decided to extend the passenger capacity cap until the end of October, as additional resources come online every week and the airport experience improves,” a Virgin Atlantic spokesman said Aug. 16. “Airline customers have a right to expect their bookings will be honored, and we’re doing everything in our power to minimize disruption, getting our customers to where they need to be smoothly.” 

The long-haul specialist said it was urging Heathrow “to provide a comprehensive plan for returning to normal operations as soon as possible.” 

Asked if the extended limitation meant that Virgin Atlantic is restricting ticket sales, or that flights are departing with empty seats, the spokeswoman told Aviation Week Network, “We’re carefully reviewing our schedules and evaluating what action will be required.” 

Meanwhile, Heathrow’s largest operator, British Airways (BA) will “continue to work closely with Heathrow Airport as we work out the implications of this extended cap,” a BA spokesperson said. 

BA recently announced that the restrictions it had temporarily imposed on short-haul flights from Heathrow would not be extended, and tickets for all flights were back on sale. The airline is understood to be reviewing the implications of the extended capacity limit.  

This may mean that the airline will have to again ration the number of seats or available fares on its flights, but it is understood not to be planning any blanket pause on ticket sales.  

Any further cancellations caused by the limits on capacity are again likely to fall on short-haul destinations with multiple daily services, so that passengers can be re-booked on another service departing the same day. 

Heathrow has now launched a review of its airline ground handling. “As part of an overall review of the [airport] eco-system, we will be working with airlines and ground handlers to understand how we can unlock more capacity in this critical part of the airport,” Heathrow said in a statement.