uk airport
© Mark Thomas/AlamyJulia KolleweHeathrow and other airports have faced massive queues amid shortages of ground staff.
Heathrow has asked airlines to stop selling summer tickets and imposed a daily limit of 100,000 passengers departing the airport, as it struggles to cope with the surge in travel.

The London hub has experienced chaotic scenes in recent weeks, as have many other UK airports, with long queue times amid shortages of ground staff and airlines cancelling thousands of flights.

Airlines had planned to operate flights that would result in about 104,000 passengers a day at Heathrow, the airport said. It added that on average, about 1,500 of the excess 4,000 daily seats had already been sold, "and so we are asking our partners to stop selling summer tickets to limit the impact on passengers".

Before the pandemic, about 110,000 to 125,000 people departed from Heathrow every day over the summer, on average.

Apologising to those affected, Heathrow said the passenger cap would mean some summer journeys would either be moved to another day or airport, or be cancelled.

"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," the Heathrow chief executive, John Holland-Kaye, wrote in an open letter to passengers on Tuesday.

"Some airlines have taken significant action, but others have not, and we believe that further action is needed now to ensure passengers have a safe and reliable journey. We have therefore made the difficult decision to introduce a capacity cap with effect from 12 July to 11 September. Similar measures to control passenger demand have been implemented at other airports both in the UK and around the world."

Last month, the Department for Transport and the Civil Aviation Authority, the regulator, wrote to the sector to ensure it was prepared to manage expected passenger levels safely and to minimise further disruption. Airlines then removed some flights from their schedules without being penalised.

Some airlines had taken action, but others had not, said Heathrow. EasyJet, the UK's biggest carrier, and British Airways are among those that have cancelled flights.

Heathrow said it had seen "40 years of passenger growth in just four months" as air travel bounced back from the Covid-19 pandemic. It started recruiting more staff last November and by the end of July would have as many people working in security as before the pandemic, it said. During the pandemic, airlines and airports laid off tens of thousands of staff and some have not returned.

Comment: Lest we forget that amidst the lockdowns, staff across all sectors were, where possible, sacked, or put on furlough. It's likely that a significant part of the cause of this disruption was the government enforced lockdowns and the subsequent action taken by the airlines to recoup as much profit as possible.

The new staff were "learning fast but are not yet up to full speed", the airport said. However, there are still shortages of critical staff, in particular ground handlers, who are contracted by airlines to provide check-in staff, load and unload bags and turn around aircraft.