The UK’s largest airport has written to airlines telling them to limit the number of arrivals and departures until 29 October due to issues with staff shortages.
It means passengers could face further disruption in the autumn as more flights will need to be cut from schedules.
The letter, seen by The Daily Telegraph, says the airport will cap the number of outbound and inbound flights over the coming months, with a limit of 1,100 set from 11 July to 31 August, 1,150 from 1 September to 30 September, and 1,200 from 1 October to 29 October.
Before the coronavirus pandemic, Heathrow had 1,350 flights per day.
It also says the airport has already had to deploy “contingency” measures to prevent “dangerous” overcrowding that could risk the safety of passengers.
Heathrow said the move was needed “to ensure a continued safe operation and to mitigate risk of uncontrolled demand increases, leading to potentially dangerous levels of congestion or crowding”.
The letter, from Mark Powell, Heathrow’s director of operational planning, said: “During the last few weeks, Heathrow has had to deploy contingencies to avoid safety events and overcrowding in the terminals including access control/call forward required to ensure the safe management of passengers queueing in landside areas.”
Airlines have also reportedly been warned they will face “restricted usage or no further usage of the airport” if they fail to reduce the capacity of flights.
Summer flights cap already in place
The decision comes after the airport last week ordered airlines to stop selling tickets for summer flights and imposed a cap on passengers numbers.
A limit of 100,000 daily departing passengers has been set until 11 September, amounting to a cut of 4,000 passengers per day.
Airlines had originally planned to operate flights with a daily capacity averaging 104,000 seats during the busy summer period, according to Heathrow.
Heathrow insisted the capacity cap is “in line with limits implemented at other airports” and said airlines have “discretion as to how they implement this in their individual schedules”.
Heathrow chief executive John Holland-Kaye said: “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.”
The cap on departing passengers comes despite airlines already reducing flights as part of the government’s slots amnesty.
Why are so many flights being cancelled?
Many workers were made redundant or changed jobs during the pandemic, and airlines and airports are now looking to recruit new workers to address the shortages.
Before the pandemic, airports and airlines across Britain employed around 140,000 people, but since then around 30,000 jobs were cut for UK airlines alone.
Transport Secretary Grant Shapps has also blamed the ongoing travel chaos on airlines and operators, saying they have “seriously oversold flights and holidays” relative to their capacity to deliver.
The government has now introduced new regulations that will allow a one-off “amnesty” on airport slot rules, enabling airlines to plan ahead and deliver a more realistic summer schedule with a view to minimising disruption at airports.
Airlines will be able to cancel flights without being penalised for not using their airport slot and had to finalise their summer schedule by Friday 8 July. It is understood that flights cancelled or removed from airline schedules after the deadline will not fall under the slot amnesty.
The slots are intended to help manage capacity at the busiest airports, giving airlines authorisation to take off or land at a particular airport at a specified time on a specified day.
In the event flights are cancelled, airlines must offer to book passengers on an alternative route as close to the original arrival time as possible.
Passengers will be entitled to a full refund for cancelled flights but can only accept either a refund or a rebooking - not both.