Heathrow has urged the government to “get a grip” of immigration and customs control and simplify the measures needed for international arrivals in order to restart mass travel from 17 May, after reporting another quarter of huge losses.
Despite a 90% drop in passengers in the first three months of 2021 to just 1.4 million people, the airport’s chief executive John Holland-Kaye said there was huge pent-up demand for travel but a “prime concern” was how arrivals would be processed at the airport.
He said there had been “horrendous queues” due to a lack of staff in immigration halls, which are operated by the government. “The Home Office has to get a grip of Border Force and make sure that doesn’t become the bottleneck for the whole economic recovery.
“We’ve had to turn away flights because of congestion in immigration. If they struggle with less than 10% of normal volumes they are going to have to do something very different to be ready for 17 May.”
Under the government’s plan to ease Covid restrictions, travel could restart next month, with Heathrow and many airlines hoping that lucrative transatlantic routes could open given the relative success of the UK and US vaccination programmes. A traffic light system will be in place, with quarantine not required for the safest “green” countries with low Covid-19 rates, though testing will still be needed.
Holland-Kaye urged the government to “simplify the measures you have to go through if you’re coming from a green country – rather than having two PCR tests even if you’re doubly vaccinated.”
The airport recorded a further £329m loss in the first quarter, bringing its total losses since the start of the pandemic to nearly £2.4bn.
While many pure cargo flights have continued, overall cargo volumes were down 23% on 2019, which Heathrow said underlined how aviation’s troubles have affected UK trade with the rest of the world.
It has cut its forecast for full-year passengers to a maximum of 36 million, but admitted it could remain as low as 13 million – about 15% of 2019 levels – should international leisure travel not restart.
Holland-Kaye said that the results showed how Covid had devastated the aviation sector, but he added: “By acting early to cut costs and protect cash, we have put ourselves in a strong financial position to weather the storm and are ready to welcome back passengers, while keeping them safe.”
Despite Heathrow’s losses, he said the airport was in a resilient financial position, and had reduced expenditure by 50% from a year ago, while refinancing meant it had £4.5bn in liquidity, sufficient to endure another 15 months at low-passenger volumes.