How on earth could we have come to this – our national airline suspending bookings from the UK’s premier airport? BA’s confirmation last night that it will sell no more tickets on short-haul flights out of Heathrow until August 8 would have been unthinkable just a few months ago. Now it’s just the latest extraordinary twist in this summer’s litany of travel mayhem.
The suspension is a direct result of Heathrow imposing a daily cap of 100,000 passengers – the most they believe they can handle under the current circumstances. And it can go on longer. BA didn’t respond to my question about whether the booking cap could be extended, but it wouldn’t be surprising if it was – the airport’s cap is in place until 12 September.
Last month there was a flurry of recriminations between Heathrow and the airlines it serves, with both Virgin Atlantic and Emirates criticizing the airport’s failings. Meanwhile, speaking to Radio Four’s Today programme, Heathrow chief executive John Holland-Kaye pointed the blame at the airlines: “Airports don’t provide ground handling, the airlines themselves do. So this is like accusing us of not having enough pilots.”
The rhetoric has now been toned down, with Heathrow claiming that punctuality and baggage handling services have improved as a result of the charge. BA’s latest statement still places the blame squarely on the airport, but tries to make a virtue of its decision to stop selling tickets on some flights: “As a result of Heathrow’s request to limit new bookings, we have decided to take responsible action and limit the available fares on some Heathrow services to help maximize rebooking options for existing customers, given the restrictions imposed on us and the ongoing challenges facing the entire aviation industry.”
But this is hardly a situation that anyone – neither the travel industry nor we, the passengers – wants to be in. Already millions of us have had our travel plans ruined or changed, and many more have been exposed to chaotic queues, long delays and lost luggage. Now – for next week – we cannot book seats on many of BA’s top services to Europe.
It is understandable that the tourism industry will face challenges in recovering from the impact of the pandemic. But the fact that so many airports and airlines have failed to anticipate and manage the huge increase in bookings in recent months has been regrettable. And it has been thrown into sharp relief by the success of the few who have gotten it right.
Outstanding among these has been Ryanair. Admittedly, it has been helped by the fact that it does not fly from Heathrow, one of the worst affected airports, and one of its biggest bases is Stansted, which has performed well. But it has managed to run almost all of its services as planned this summer. And as a result, it will be the biggest winner as a result of the latest restrictions. While BA and Heathrow put bookings on hold, Ryanair is open for business.
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