Emirates has forcefully pushed back against the demand of London Heathrow Airport to cut flights. In doing so, it is has exposed the hypocrisy of the airport while demonstrating a one-size-fits-all approach to mitigating overcrowding is not appropriate.
London Heathrow Wants Airlines To Stop Selling Seats, Cancel Flights To Reduce Crowding
Earlier this week, London Heathrow (LHR) asked airlines to stop selling seats and cut flights as part of its goal of limiting departing passengers to 100,000 per day. It defended itself, noting that it had begun to hire more staff last November in anticipation of a busy summer:
“We started recruiting back in November last year in anticipation of capacity recovering this summer, and by the end of July, we will have as many people working in security as we had pre-pandemic. We have also reopened and moved 25 airlines into Terminal 4 to provide more space for passengers and grown our passenger service team.
“New colleagues are learning fast but are not yet up to full speed. However, there are some critical functions in the airport which are still significantly under resourced, in particular ground handlers, who are contracted by airlines to provide check-in staff, load and unload bags and turnaround aircraft. They are doing the very best they can with the resources available and we are giving them as much support possible, but this is a significant constraint to the airport’s overall capacity.”
Heathrow blames airlines for inadequate ground staffing, but then goes on to admit that it has insufficient security checkpoint staff as well as staff to handle special assistance requests, like wheelchairs. Still, it blames airlines for this, lamenting late arrivals and last-minute cancellations.
“However, 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.
“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. Our colleagues are going above and beyond to get as many passengers away as possible, but we cannot put them at risk for their own safety and wellbeing.”
Heathrow’s solution is to introduce a capacity cap with effect from July 12 to September 11, 2022. It wants to limit departing passengers to 100,000 per day and now wants airlines to trim schedules by cancelling flights in order to make this possible.
You can read Heathrow’s full statement here.
Emirates: No Way, We Are Not Cutting Flights
But Emirates won’t play that game…at least not yet. In a scathing reply to Heathrow airport authorities, Emirates rejected the demands to trim its schedule. Here is the letter in full, which cogently makes the case for why Emirates will not comply with the demands of LHR:
Emirates values our partnerships with airport stakeholders across our network with whom we engage continuously, and collaboratively, to secure our flight operations and ensure minimal customer disruption, particularly over the peak travel months.
It is therefore highly regrettable that LHR last evening gave us 36 hours to comply with capacity cuts, of a figure that appears to be plucked from thin air. Their communications not only dictated the specific flights on which we should throw out paying passengers, but also threatened legal action for non-compliance.
This is entirely unreasonable and unacceptable, and we reject these demands.
At London Heathrow airport (LHR), our ground handling and catering – run by dnata, part of the Emirates Group – are fully ready and capable of handling our flights. So the crux of the issue lies with the central services and systems which are the responsibility of the airport operator.
Emirates is a key and steadfast operator at LHR, having reinstated 6 daily A380 flights since October 2021. From our past 10 months of regularly high seat loads, our operational requirements cannot be a surprise to the airport.
Now, with blatant disregard for consumers, they wish to force Emirates to deny seats to tens of thousands of travellers who have paid for, and booked months ahead, their long-awaited package holidays or trips to see their loved ones. And this, during the super peak period with the upcoming UK holidays, and at a time when many people are desperate to travel after 2 years of pandemic restrictions.
Emirates believes in doing the right thing by our customers. However, re-booking the sheer numbers of potentially impacted passengers is impossible with all flights running full for the next weeks, including at other London airports and on other airlines. Adding to the complexity, 70% of our customers from LHR are headed beyond Dubai to see loved ones in far flung destinations, and it will be impossible to find them new onward connections at short notice.
Moving some of our passenger operations to other UK airports at such short notice is also not realistic. Ensuring ground readiness to handle and turnaround a widebody long-haul aircraft with 500 passengers onboard is not as simple as finding a parking spot at a mall.
The bottomline is, the LHR management team are cavalier about travellers and their airline customers. All the signals of a strong travel rebound were there, and for months, Emirates has been publicly vocal about the matter. We planned ahead to get to a state of readiness to serve customers and travel demand, including rehiring and training 1,000 A380 pilots in the past year.
LHR chose not to act, not to plan, not to 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 shareholders of London Heathrow should scrutinise the decisions of the LHR management team.
Given the tremendous value that the aviation community generates for the UK economy and communities, we welcome the action taken by the UK Department for Transport and Civil Aviation Authority to seek information from LHR on their response plans, systems resilience, and to explain the seemingly arbitrary cap of 100,000 daily passengers. Considering LHR handled 80.9 million passengers annually in 2019, or a daily average of 219,000, the cap represents greater than a 50% cut at a time when LHR claims to have 70% of ground handling resources in place.
Until further notice, Emirates plans to operate as scheduled to and from LHR.
This is a great statement and Emirates makes a number of effective points:
- Cancelling flights at this point will ruin long-planned vacations or trips for thousands of passengers – it is fundamentally unfair
- High loads on Emirates are not new…the carrier was among the first to ramp up service to LHR
- Emirates’ own dnata ground staff unit is carrying its weight in terms of ground services and Emirates is not experiencing the sort of baggage issues other carriers are facing
I’m not sure about the penultimate paragraph, though, since Heathrow’s 100,000 passenger number is limited to departures, not total daily passengers. I don’t think Heathrow passenger traffic is at half of 2019 levels. Still, it is an effective letter.
We seem to be in this horrible inflationary spiral right now, but the only way Heathrow (and other airports) and airlines are going to be able to hire sufficient staff is to pay them competitively. The labor market is tight and workers currently have options. The downside is this results in higher ticket prices and higher airport taxes, but this seems to be preferred to facing snarling lines, lost baggage, and rolling delays each day as Heathrow buckles under its own weight.