A year ago, The Independent published an article on late December flights that began: “At Christmas, Britain’s airports operate at full stretch…”
But in 2020, no UK airport will see more than a small fraction of the passenger numbers in 2019.
Travellers’ confidence is at an all-time low due to the coronavirus pandemic, while a web of government restrictions have brought international travel to a near standstill.
Airports such as Cardiff, Newquay, Norwich and Prestwick have seen scheduled flights overseas effectively collapse.
But there are signs that Christmas and New Year will bring a relative flurry of activity.
Airport Coordination Ltd (ACL), the Staines-based consultancy that allocates slots at constrained airport, says: “Whilst flying volumes for winter 2020/21 remain substantially diminished, there are still peaks in the schedule for December and January.
“Our schedule data currently indicates a week-on-week increase in ATMs [air-traffic movements] of over 50 per cent for the week beginning 14 December, with further increases seen into the first week of January.
“We currently forecast that the 18 December, 27 December and 3 January will be the busiest days over the festive period.”
Ordinarily the weekend of 19 and 20 December would be busy with ski flights, but there is unlikely to be any significant winter-sports traffic before Christmas.
The final weekend of the festive spell, in this case 2 and 3 January, will also be largely devoid of ski traffic, but as the last day before the working week begins it appears a relatively popular day to return to the UK.
All the airport operators consulted by The Independent have emphasised that schedules are subject to very short-notice changes depending on demand – which itself is strongly affected by government action.
The UK’s busiest, Heathrow airport, reports 18, 19 and 20 December appear at present to be peak departure days, while the highest number of arrivals are likely to be on 27 and 28 December.
The overall busiest days are expected to be 19 and 27 December. The latter coincides with the last day of the easing of travel restrictions in England, Wales and Scotland.
Belfast International airport, the largest in Northern Ireland, anticipates 22 December will be the busiest day. It coincides with the opening of the permitted travel window for travel between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
Scotland’s busiest hub, Edinburgh airport, predicts that successive Sundays – 20 and 27 December – will be busiest, with around 9,000 seats on departing flights.
How many of them will be filled is one of many uncertainties in the coronavirus pandemic.
Birmingham airport predicts 19 and 26 December will be busiest, with the Canary Islands, UK domestics and Dubai the top destinations by passenger numbers.
One unusual facet of Christmas 2020 is that there are far more European flights operating on 25 December than in any previous year.
While typically there are between one-quarter and one-third as many flights on Christmas Day compared with 24 or 26 December, in 2020 the proportion is around half.
Many of them will be on Wizz Air from Luton airport. The busiest day at the Bedfordshire airport is expected to be Christmas Eve.