Heathrow has ruled out introducing a flight cap this Christmas following a backlash from airlines over potential restrictions during the busiest days of the festive period.
The airport – the busiest in Europe – said it had a “good plan” in place for the coming weeks, after holding talks with airlines and ground handlers to prepare for the Christmas peak.
Options being discussed are understood to include moving flight times to prevent a crowding at security, as well as reducing the number of flights if airlines have numerous planes flying to the same destination but at reduced capacity. Airlines often consolidate flights in this way as a way of cutting costs.
While talks for other options are taking place, Heathrow said it will not be forcing airlines to cut flights, following a consultation which ended last month.
John Holland-Kaye, chief executive of Heathrow, said: “We have come so far since Omicron grounded Christmas travel plans last year. Heathrow, our airline partners and their handlers are all working together to make sure everyone can be reunited with their loved ones this Christmas.”
It comes after weeks of growing pressure from airlines over a proposed cap, with Virgin Atlantic co-owner Sir Richard Branson earlier this month saying he would be “extremely upset if [Heathrow] haven’t got their act together before Christmas”. “They’ve had a lot of time to get sorted – I’d be really pi–ed off if there were capacity cuts,” he said last week.
Virgin Atlantic had accused Heathrow of “continuing to downplay the strength of returning passenger demand”, and argued that airlines had “repeatedly warned of the need to use accurate forecasts to inform airport resourcing”.
A spokesman for Virgin Atlantic said: “By maintaining a deliberately pessimistic outlook, customers risk a poorer airport experience.”
Sir Tim Clark, president of Emirates, had called for Mr Holland-Kaye to resign after the Telegraph disclosed last month that the airport was in talks with carriers to introduce an ad hoc cap during peak periods this Christmas.
Over the summer, Heathrow limited passenger numbers to 100,000 a day, arguing that it would prevent similar travel chaos experienced when Covid restrictions were first eased as it struggled to recruit enough staff. Both airlines and airports had blamed each other for the disruption, after passengers faced swathes of cancellations and long queues for security. The restrictions were lifted late last month.
However, Heathrow had suggested that it was considering limiting flight numbers once again over the festive rush, saying it expected “peak days at Christmas to be very busy”.
Last month, a spokesman said: “We are working with our airline partners to develop a more targeted mechanism, which protects passenger service during peak periods.”
Heathrow’s decision to rule out a flight cap comes after a hiring push by the airport. Heathrow is expected to reach pre-pandemic employment levels before next year’s summer peak, after training around 16,000 staff over the last 12 months.
The airline said it had served 5.9 million passengers in October, equal to around 84pc of 2019 levels, saying there was buoyant demand from people booking holidays, particularly over the half term. It recorded its busiest day since July last month.
Heathrow said it was also aware of upcoming possible strike action which included Border Force workers.
It said: “We are supporting organisations on contingency plans to minimise any impact, and encourage all parties to put the interests of passengers first.”