The head of London Heathrow (LHR) has blamed the UK government’s quarantine rules and its reluctance to adopt Covid-19 passenger testing for the airport’s decline in Europe’s ranking of busiest gateways and its ceding of the lead position to Paris Charles de Gaulle Airport (CDG). LHR handled 18.97 million passengers in the first nine months, compared with 19.27 million at CDG.
“Britain is falling behind because we’ve been too slow to embrace passenger testing,” lamented Heathrow CEO John Holland-Kaye. “European leaders acted quicker and now their economies are reaping the benefits. Paris has overtaken Heathrow as Europe’s largest airport for the first time ever, and Frankfurt and Amsterdam are quickly gaining ground.” Amsterdam's Schiphol handled 17.6 million passengers in the period and Lufthansa-stronghold Frankfurt had 16.16 million. All three continental competitors have implemented testing regimes, Holland-Kaye pointed out.
In contrast, the government of Prime Minister Boris Johnson is still trying to define its position on the issue and in the meantime is upholding its quarantine rule that requires passengers to self-isolate for two weeks if they arrive from countries that are not on the UK’s so-called safe travel corridor list. The government did launch a Global Travel Taskforce earlier this month to look at ways of reducing the isolation period, possibly by introducing a “test-and-release” scheme that would see passengers take a PCR test at their own expense. The task force is expected to report on its findings early in November.
Last week, Transport Secretary Grant Shapps indicated that the government could implement the testing regime in December, but he cautioned that this will depend on the industry's ability to provide the testing capacity. Holland-Kaye warned that without a rapid move to testing, the UK will fall even further behind its European competitors. “Bringing in pre-departure Covid tests and partnering with our U.S. allies to open a pilot airbridge to America will kickstart our economic recovery and put the UK back ahead of our European rivals,” he said as the airport reported an 84 percent drop in passenger numbers in the third quarter. Loss before tax spiraled to £1.5 billion over the first nine months of the year, from a £76 million loss in the same period last year.
Heathrow lowered its traffic guidance Wednesday and said it now expects to process just 22.6 million passengers in 2020 and 37.1 million in 2021, compared with its June forecast of 29.2 million in 2020 and 62.8 million in 2021, as well as 2019 actuals of 81 million.
The London airport is not alone in issuing a grim outlook for the remainder of the year. Trade body ACI Europe on Tuesday warned that an estimated 193 airports across Europe face insolvency in the coming months if passenger traffic does not start to recover soon.
Eurocontrol also cautioned that it might again have to readjust its forecast downwards. The number of flights across the network this month dipped 57 percent from last year’s level, and this is in line with the scenarios “for the moment.” But “the situation is going deteriorate as a result of the second wave of the pandemic,” it noted in its latest Covid-19 impact assessment report, released on Wednesday.
“A number of large network carriers have indicated to Eurocontrol their intentions to further reduce capacity during the months of November and December, which will have a material impact on the total number of flights in the network,” it said.
According to a Jefferies research report, total global flights are expected to be down 49 percent during the week beginning October 26 from the same period last year. Europe remains the hardest-hit region, with a projected year-over-year decline for the period of 65 percent.