Heathrow faces backlash from Emirates over capacity cap enforcement

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Emirates Airlines has issued a scathing statement in response to the announcement by London Heathrow Airport (LHR) that it would be capping passenger numbers at 100,000 daily over the summer, with airlines asked to “stop selling summer tickets to limit the impact on passengers”.

In the statement, which was released today (July 14), Emirates said it had been given 36 hours to comply with capacity cuts “of a figure that appears to be plucked from thin air” and that the airline viewed the decision as “entirely unreasonable and unacceptable” and it “reject[s]these demands”.

According to a statement from Heathrow CEO John Holland-Kaye on the airport’s website, “The global aviation industry is recovering from the pandemic, but the legacy of Covid continues to pose challenges for the entire sector as it rebuilds capacity. At Heathrow, we have seen 40 years of passenger growth in just four months.”

Holland-Kaye said that despite recruiting more staff from November 2021 and having as many people by the end of this month working in security as it had pre-pandemic, “over the past few weeks, as departing passenger numbers have regularly exceeded 100,000 a day, we have started to see periods when service drops to a level that is not acceptable: long queue times, delays for passengers requiring assistance, bags not traveling with passengers or arriving late, low punctuality and last-minute cancellations.”

He continued, “Last month, the DfT [Department for Transport] and CAA [Civil Aviation Authority] wrote to the sector asking us all to review our plans for the summer and ensure we were prepared to manage expected passenger levels safely and minimize further disruption. Ministers subsequently implemented a slot amnesty program to encourage airlines to remove flights from their schedules with no penalty. We held off putting additional controls on passenger numbers until this amnesty process concluded last Friday and we had a clearer view of the reductions that airlines have made.”

The airport has decided the maximum number of daily departing passengers that airlines, airline ground handlers and the airport can collectively serve over the summer is no more than 100,000, with the latest forecasts indicating that despite the amnesty, daily departing seats over the summer will average 104,000 – giving a daily excess of 4,000 seats. “On average only about 1,500 of these 4,000 daily seats have currently been sold to passengers, and so we are asking our airline partners to stop selling summer tickets to limit the impact on passengers,” said Holland-Kaye.

“By making this intervention now, our objective is to protect flights for the vast majority of passengers at Heathrow this summer and to give confidence that everyone who does travel through the airport will have a safe and reliable journey and arrive at their destination with their bags. We recognize that this will mean some summer journeys will either be moved to another day, another airport or be canceled and we apologise to those whose travel plans are affected.”

However, Emirates argued that its ground handling and catering – run by dnata, part of the Emirates Group – are “fully ready and capable of handling our flights” at LHR and “the crux of the issue lies with the central services and systems which are the responsibility of the airport operator”.

The airline continued, “Emirates is a key and steadfast operator at LHR, having reinstated six daily A380 flights since October 2021. From our past 10 months of regularly high seat loads, our operational requirements cannot be a surprise to the airport.

“Now, with blatant disregard for consumers, they wish to force Emirates to deny seats to tens of thousands of travelers who have paid for, and booked months ahead, their long-awaited package holidays or trips to see their loved ones. And this, during the super peak period with the upcoming UK holidays, and at a time when many people are desperate to travel after two years of pandemic restrictions.”

The airline argued that “re-booking the sheer numbers of potentially impacted passengers is impossible with all flights running full for the next weeks, including at other London airports and on other airlines”.

It continued, “70% of our customers from LHR are headed beyond Dubai to see loved ones in far flung destinations, and it will be impossible to find them new onward connections at short notice. Moving some of our passenger operations to other UK airports at such short notice is also not realistic. Ensuring ground readiness to handle and turnaround a wide-body long-haul aircraft with 500 passengers on board is not as simple as finding a parking spot at a mall.”

Emirates believes that all the signals of a strong travel rebound were there but that LHR “chose not to act, not to plan, not invest” and are “pushing the entire burden – of costs and the scramble to sort the mess – to airlines and travelers”.

The airline concluded that “until further notice, Emirates plans to operate as scheduled to and from LHR”.

Passenger Terminal World contacted London Heathrow for a response to Emirates’ comments. A Heathrow spokesperson said, “Aviation is a complex network and no one can operate in isolation. The network continues to suffer from Covid-related challenges. While many factors have resulted in the delayed flights, misconnected bags, long waits for arriving bags and last-minute cancellations at Heathrow and airports across Europe in recent weeks – a key issue is airline ground handling teams which are currently only resourced up to 70% capacity to serve passenger demand which has returned to 80-85% of pre-pandemic levels.

For months we have asked airlines to help come up with a plan to solve their resourcing challenges, but no clear plans were forthcoming and with each passing day the problem got worse. We had no choice but to take the difficult decision to impose a capacity cap designed to give passengers a better, more reliable journey and to keep everyone working at the airport safe. We have tried to be as supportive as possible to airlines and our 100,000 cap on daily departing passengers is significantly higher than the 64,000 cap at Schiphol. It would be disappointing if instead of working together, any airline would want to put profit ahead a safe and reliable passenger journey.”

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With over a decade of experience as a business and technology journalist working in B2B publishing, Hazel first joined UKi in 2011. After taking 18 months off to bring up her daughter and try her hand at marketing copywriting, she returned in January 2018 to do what she loves best – magazine editing! She is now the editor of UKi's Passenger Terminal World and Parcel and Postal Technology International magazines.

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