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London Heathrow Ending Daily Passenger Caps Gives Airlines New Schedule Confidence

Flying will get a little easier through London Heathrow this winter after staffing issues and capacity caps created chaos at Europe’s busiest airport last summer.

The airport, which first capped the number of passengers that could travel through the facility in June, will let the current rules expire as scheduled at the end of October. A new flight management regime will begin at the end of the month that, while still not back to pre-pandemic flight levels, will provide airlines with certainty around their schedule planning — something that executives lambasted Heathrow for not doing this summer.

“Our focus has always been on removing the cap as quickly as possible — but we will only do so if we are confident that adding in more passengers will not erode the service levels that the cap has secured,” a Heathrow spokesperson said Tuesday. “We continue to work with all of our airline partners ahead of the winter season to ensure a smooth operation for our passengers.”

Beginning October 30 and running through March 25, airlines will be allowed to operate an average of just over 40 departures an hour and nearly 39 arrivals at Heathrow, according to the airport slot manager Airport Coordination Limited. These are on par with 2019 levels through the total number of daily departures and arrivals are down slightly compared to three years ago. However, some passenger capacity constraints remain and there are additional limits in place for the holidays to minimize crowding during the Christmas and New Years rush.

But the fact that this scheme is in place now, and has been for several weeks, is a positive step. It means airlines can avoid the disruptive — and costly — last minute schedule changes they were forced to make with Heathrow suddenly implemented, and expanded, its caps this summer.

Emirates was one of the most vocal carriers speaking out against the sudden limits that Heathrow implemented in July with — as the airline saw it — little warning. The airline’s president, Tim Clark, said later that month that the “rules of the game will not change as far as Emirates is concerned” in terms of airport operations.

And when airlines are suddenly forced to cancel or reschedule flights in Europe or the UK, they must pay to what are known as EU or UK 261 compensation to travelers’ whose trips are disrupted. Those payments for a full Emirates A380 that can seat up to 615 passengers could amount to as much as 369,000 ($367,750) for just one flight before any reaccommodation or other expenses.

Operational clarity well ahead of time is thus of high importance to airlines, even if those operations are lower than it may prefer to fly.

Airlines are scheduled to operate just 5 percent fewer flights, and 4 percent fewer seats, at Heathrow from November through March 2023 compared to the same period from 2018 to 2019, according to Diio by Cirium schedules. The airport’s largest airline, British Airways, will operate 3.5 percent fewer seats, and its second largest, Virgin Atlantic Airways, 25 percent more seats. Emirates will be up 2 percent.

In August, British Airways reduced its winter schedule by roughly 8 percent from plan. The carrier plans to operate roughly 290 departures a day from Heathrow through March.

Heathrow handled 38.4 million passengers during the eight months ending in August, airport data show. That was down 29 percent compared to 2019, however, August traffic had recovered to 79 percent of levels seen three years earlier.

This article originally appeared in Airline Weekly

Photo: Heathrow Airport

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