UK government issues ultimatum to Heathrow CEO over flight disruption
Ministers have issued an ultimatum to the chief executive of Heathrow, calling on him to provide a plan to resolve the airport’s staffing problems, it has been reported.
John Holland-Kaye has until midday on Friday to assure ministers that the airport has sufficient workers for security screening and to assist disabled passengers, according to a letter from the Department for Transport’s (DfT) director general for aviation, maritime and security and the chief executive of the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) seen by the Daily Telegraph.
The airport boss has also been asked to report back with a “credible and resilient capacity recovery plan for the next six months”.
Rannia Leontaridi, a civil servant in the DfT, and Richard Moriarty, the chief executive of the CAA, wrote: “Heathrow and the airlines that use your airport must be assured, and be able to assure us, that you have in place a plan that can deliver a positive passenger experience through allowing as many people as possible to travel, without too much disruption and queues, and in particular to avoid significant numbers of short-notice and on-the-day cancellations.
“The Government and the CAA are concerned that current resourcing plans are not delivering this outcome.”
The ultimatum comes as Emirates defied Heathrow’s demand that airlines cut summer flights, saying it would continue to operate its planned schedule and accusing the London airport of fomenting “airmageddon”.
The Gulf carrier said that the airport’s request, made in an attempt to ease travel disruption, was “entirely unreasonable and unacceptable”. In a blistering statement, the airline instead pointed the finger at Heathrow management’s “incompetence and non-action” in failing to prepare for the rebound in flying after coronavirus travel restrictions were lifted.
Heathrow announced on Tuesday that it was capping daily passenger numbers at 100,000 over the summer and telling airlines to stop selling tickets for the peak season. The move was designed to avoid repeats of the chaotic scenes at airports around country at Easter and half-term, caused by soaring demand for travel at a time of staff shortages.
Apologising to those affected, Heathrow said on Tuesday that the passenger cap would mean some summer flights would either be moved to another day or airport or cancelled altogether.
Airlines have already slashed thousands of flights from their summer schedules after UK aviation authorities offered a temporary “slot amnesty”, allowing airlines to escape forfeiting valuable takeoff and landing slots if they did not use them this year. The government said the move would benefit travellers by encouraging carriers to limit the number of last-minute cancellations.
Heathrow said the cuts did not go far enough, but Emirates – which operates six daily return flights between Britain’s busiest airport and Dubai, and flies fleets of A380 superjumbos that cannot be used at smaller airports – said it was “highly regrettable” that Heathrow gave it 36 hours on Wednesday to comply with capacity reductions “of a figure that appears to be plucked from thin air”.
The airline said: “Their communications not only dictated the specific flights on which we should throw out paying passengers, but also threatened legal action for non-compliance.”
Surging demand for summer travel after two years of Covid-19 restrictions has swamped airlines and airports in Europe, which are short-staffed after many pilots, cabin crew, check-in workers and baggage handlers were made redundant. That has left passengers facing last-minute cancellations, lengthy delays, lost luggage or long waits for bags.
Heathrow blames a shortage of ground staff, who are contracted by airlines to check in passengers, load and unload bags, and prepare aircraft for their next journeys.
Emirates, however, said its ground-handling and catering services are owned by the airline’s parent company and “are fully ready and capable of handling our flights”. The blame instead lies with the airport’s “central services and systems”, it said.
The airline accused Heathrow’s management of being “cavalier” about passengers and airlines, with signs of a rebound in travel having been apparent for months.
Emirates said that while it had prepared for the recovery, including by rehiring and training 1,000 pilots in the past year, Heathrow had failed to act, plan or invest.
“Now, faced with an ‘airmageddon’ situation due to their incompetence and non-action, they are pushing the entire burden of costs and the scramble to sort the mess to airlines and travellers,” the statement said.
Emirates urged London Heathrow’s shareholders – largely sovereign wealth funds, including Qatar – to “scrutinise the decisions of the management team”, piling the pressure on Holland-Kaye.
Heathrow said it had been asking airlines for months to help draw up a plan to solve their staffing challenges, “but no clear plans were forthcoming, and with each passing day the problem got worse”.
The airport said in response to the Emirates statement: “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.
“It would be disappointing if instead of working together, any airline would want to put profit ahead of a safe and reliable passenger journey.”
Rebooking so many potentially affected passengers is impossible because all flights for the next few weeks are full, including at other London airports and on alternative airlines, Emirates said. Moving some operations to other UK airports at short notice was also unrealistic, it added.