Last month, at least 600,000 people canceled flights from Heathrow Airport when the Omicron coronavirus strain prompted tighter travel restrictions.
Heathrow boss John Holland-Kaye said it highlighted the industry’s problems and the unpredictability that travelers face.
The chief executive of the UK’s busiest airport cautioned that a return to normal “may be years away.” In 2021, only 19.4 million passengers traveled through Heathrow, down 12.3% from 2020, when the pandemic began.
Last year’s number was less than a fourth of the pre-pandemic levels seen in 2019, which was the lowest for Heathrow in 50 years. Mr. Holland-Kaye believes that all coronavirus testing for fully vaccinated patients should be discontinued.
Due to concerns about the Omicron Covid strain, all visitors arriving in the UK were forced to do a pre-departure lateral flow test and self-isolate until they had a negative result from a post-arrival PCR test starting in late November. Consequently, many people canceled their travel plans over the holiday season.
The new limits were lifted for fully-vaccinated newcomers last week after travel firms argued they were ineffectual due to Omicron spreading broadly inside the UK. According to airlines, this action resulted in a surge in bookings.
“There are presently travel restrictions, such as testing, on all Heathrow lines – the aviation sector will only truly recover when they are all lifted and there is no possibility of them being re-imposed at short notice, which is unlikely to happen for years,” Mr. Holland-Kaye added.
He cautioned that the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), the aviation regulator, faces “enormous uncertainty” as it prepares to put a five-year maximum on Heathrow’s passenger charges. The CAA raised the price per passenger ceiling at Heathrow from £19.60 to £30.19 on January 1, causing airlines to complain that the increase was far too high. In the next few weeks, the CAA is likely to publish a long-term cap that will last until 2027.
Heathrow reported that travel to and from the Asia-Pacific area was particularly hard hit in 2021, with a 40.3 percent drop from the previous year.
Non-EU Europe (down 13.8 percent) and North America were the only other markets with double-digit declines (down 13.6 percent ).
Domestic travel defied the trend, with a 21.1 percent increase in passengers in 2020 compared to the previous year.