Crisis over capacity19 December 2022
With airlines finding themselves forced to cancel hundreds of thousands of flights over the summer due to a host of issues, many sought to get ahead of this challenge by implementing passenger capacity limits. These caps were intended to lead to fewer cancellations, shorter wait times and better punctuality, but have drawn criticism from airlines as they reduce the number of daily flights and routes available to travellers. Nicholas Kenny takes a deep dive into this ongoing debate.
For the air travel sector, the Covid-19 pandemic was a crisis like no other. In 2022, more than two years on from the first lockdowns coming into effect, the industry is still very much dealing with the fallout. One of the key issues facing airports and airlines is that even as demand has largely recovered, staff numbers have lagged behind, with shortages in baggage handling, air traffic control, security and more. As a result, the summer of 2022 saw considerable disruption with the industry struggling to meet the rising demand, as travellers sought to make good on the holidays they had put off over the past two years. Labour shortages and strikes had already caused disruption in London, Amsterdam, Paris, Rome and Frankfurt in the spring, and more have followed over the course of the year.
The issue across the board has been conflict over pay – much of Europe is facing rapidly rising inflation, and strike action has extended far beyond air travel over the year. These combined issues – staff shortages and strike action – led to a huge number of flight cancellations in the summer of 2022. According to data from flight-tracking website FlightAware, US-based carriers alone cancelled 128,934 flights between January and July 2022, up 11% from 2019 levels. More than one million US-based carrier flights experienced delays in the same time period. Europe had it even worse – experiencing more than double the cancellations of US carriers between April and June, according to data from flight-tracking company RadarBox.com. Scrapped flights in June alone accounted for 7,870 flights departing from Germany, the UK, France, Italy and Spain, almost triple the number from the same period in 2019.
If the cap fits
Amid all of this disruption, a number of airports decided to take action, placing limits on the number of passengers that could pass through an airport per day. In July 2022, London Heathrow Airport announced its intention to implement a passenger capacity limit of 100,000 departing travellers each day, running from 12 July until 11 September. Before the cap had been issued, airlines had scheduled flights that would result in about 104,000 passengers passing through Heathrow each day during the summer, according to the airport.
The number of aviation staff that were furloughed, fired or threatened with redundancy during the spring and summer of 2020.
Heathrow Airports’ passenger cap was a result of many airlines not taking “significant action” to help address the challenges facing the industry, according to its CEO, John Holland-Kaye, leaving the airport with no choice but to impose restrictions in order to ensure service standards were met.
“Over the past few weeks, as departing passenger numbers have regularly exceeded 100,000 a day, we have started to see periods when service drops to a level that is not acceptable: long queue times, delays for passengers requiring assistance, bags not travelling with passengers or arriving late, low punctuality and last-minute cancellations,” said Holland-Kaye, during the passenger cap announcement.
“This is due to a combination of reduced arrivals punctuality (as a result of delays at other airports and in European airspace) and increased passenger numbers starting to exceed the combined capacity of airlines, airline ground handlers and the airport.”
In August 2022, Heathrow Airport would go on to extend the passenger capacity limit from 11 September to 29 October, noting that the cap had led to fewer cancellations, shorter wait times and better punctuality. In the four weeks leading up to the cap, an average of 40% of flights out of Heathrow were delayed, and 2.7% were cancelled, according to FlightAware. The first four weeks after the introduction of the cap saw the average rate of delay fall to roughly 32% and cancellation drop to 1.3%.
Prior to Heathrow’s implementation of passenger capacity limits, Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam led the way, announcing a cap of its own on 16 June. Some 67,500 travellers would be allowed to pass through the airport each day in July, rising to 72,500 in August. However, this cap was reimplemented in September, once more limiting traveller numbers to 67,500, while in October it rose almost imperceptibly to 69,500 a day.
The reason Schiphol provided for this cap was a lack of security employees to perform the necessary checks on passengers, with the airport trying to ensure the safety of passengers and employees.
“We are taking this measure with an unbelievably heavy heart. Everyone at Schiphol and all our partners want nothing more than to welcome all travellers with open arms, especially after the impact coronavirus has had,” said Dick Benschop, then-CEO of Schiphol, in the announcement of the cap.
“Setting a limit now means that the large majority of travellers will be able to travel from Schiphol in a safe and responsible way.” Benschop would go on to resign in September following a chaotic summer at the airport that saw a deluge of delays and flight cancellations.
Other airports beyond Heathrow and Schiphol in the UK and northern Europe also instituted passenger capacity limits. Most notably, Gatwick, the UK’s second-busiest airport after Heathrow, limited airlines to 825 flights a day in July and 850 a day in August, while Frankfurt International Airport in Germany reduced the number of hourly flights from 96 to 88 from July onwards.
Effect on airlines
Of course, these passenger caps not only have an impact on would-be travellers, but also greatly affect the operations of airlines. American Airlines put a halt to flights out of Amsterdam through July, partly as a result of Schiphol Airport’s passenger cap. Similarly, after Dutch authorities asked airlines for help in limiting the number of daily passengers, United Airlines cancelled its flights between Amsterdam and Washington Dulles International Airport in Virginia.
In the UK, easyJet and British Airways (BA) are among those that have cancelled flights as a result of passenger capacity limits. BA cancelled 629 short-haul round trips up to 29 October from Heathrow alone after the airport announced it’s 100,000 daily traveller cap, while another 5,000 BA short-haul flights from Heathrow, Gatwick and London City Airport were cancelled over the winter period. Meanwhile, easyJet cut an estimated 10,000 flights as a result of these passenger capacity limits, according to a June Telegraph article.
While these airlines were content to cut services, others sought to take legal action against the airports that put these caps in place. Air Serbia, in protest of the restrictions at Amsterdam Schiphol, claimed in July the caps were causing the airline “great financial and reputational damage” by forcing it to limit the amount of passengers it could transport between Schiphol and Belgrade, Air Serbia’s home hub.
Even airlines that have bounced back quickly after the pandemic were more than happy to take some shots at the passenger capacity limits. Ryanair announced in August that it would be adding more than a million additional seats to its UK schedule in the winter of 2022, which it pitched to travellers against the contrast of capacity cuts by other airlines, BA in particular.
The additional seats, Ryanair declared, are a “response to BA’s announcement that it will cancel 8% of its winter schedule (over 10,000 flights) due to staff shortages and capacity cuts at ‘Hopeless Heathrow’.” Here, the authorial voice of the airline’s CEO, Michael O’Leary, could clearly be heard – he had been pushing the ‘Hopeless Heathrow’ line throughout the passenger capacity limit debate, using it to highlight Ryanair’s partnership with London Stansted, which didn’t introduce passenger caps in 2022.
Organisational bodies and associations for airlines and air travel have remained steadfast in their opposition to passenger capacity limits. In August, in the wake of Heathrow’s implementation of said caps, Willie Walsh, director general of the International Air Transport Association (IATA) and former head of BA, had some harsh words for the airport.
“By capping passenger numbers, airports are preventing airlines from benefitting from the strong demand,” said Walsh. “Heathrow airport has tried to blame airlines for the disruption. However, service level performance data for the first six months of this year show they have failed miserably to provide basic services.”
The end in sight?
However, there is reason to hope that the end of 2022 could see the end of most passenger caps, with 2023 seeing off the final stragglers. On 11 November, Heathrow announced that it would not reintroduce a cap on passenger number around Christmas, after its previous cap had wrapped up at the end of October.
The airport had previously stated that it was working with airlines to find a way of “aligning supply and demand” on some peak days before Christmas, which drew tentative approval from airlines, with Airlines UK, the trade body for UK-registered airlines, noting that “any mechanism must be justified”.
Looking ahead at what the airport predicts will be the biggest festive travel season since the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, Heathrow stated that it now has a “good plan” developed, which would not require a cap on passenger capacity. At the time of writing, it is still in discussions with airlines over the exact details, though it is believed that some flights might be moved to quieter times or consolidated where possible.
Schiphol Airport, on the other hand, has extended its passenger capacity limit to March 2023, potentially causing issues over the winter period. Gatwick ended its cap after the summer period was over and has shown no indication that it might be reinstated in the new year.
Airlines, and the industry as a whole as it rebuilds from the effects of the pandemic, will hope that 2023 will prove a much smoother year where operations are concerned, and airports like Heathrow have indicated that they’re investing the time and money to address the staffing shortages that caused such issue in 2022. However, as noted earlier, strikes are continuing to take place across the industry, particularly in Europe – until the underlying conditions are treated, disruption could continue well into the future.
“UK airlines are building on this year’s recovery from the pandemic and delivering for their customers,” says a spokesperson for Airlines UK, in response to a query in early December about the potential of airports reintroducing passenger capacity limits in 2023.
It expects “the whole aviation ecosystem, especially airports, to put the resources in place to allow airlines to operate normally and meet the strong demand for holidays, business trips and to meet friends and family that we all expect, without the need for caps on passenger numbers”.
Of course, airports don’t want to reintroduce passenger limits either – it’s bad for business, reduces possible profits and damages passenger trust in air travel. However, the greatest effect of the pandemic on the industry – the loss of roughly 400,000 aviation staff during the spring and summer of 2020 across the world – is still deeply felt. Until this loss is properly addressed, airports and airlines will continue to struggle, even if passenger demand returns to pre-pandemic levels.
The number of passengers a day that could pass through Heathrow Airport while its passenger cap was in effect.