Business leaders have urged the government to end the stagnation in British air travel after Heathrow lost its crown to its Parisian rival as the airport that handles the greatest number of passengers in Europe.
Bosses say the lack of activity at Heathrow makes it look like Britain is not open for business when other world-facing economies such as France, Germany and the Netherlands have introduced coronavirus testing regimes for their international hubs.
The need to retain Heathrow’s pre-eminence in European aviation was the main argument the airport used when trying to persuade successive governments of the need for a third runway, adding tens of millions of passengers to the 81 million that up to last year were passing through its terminals. Without a new runway, it was argued, Heathrow, which had already lost its status as the busiest international airport in the world to the superhubs in the Gulf region, would start falling behind its European rivals, too.
That argument collapsed under a welter of environmental data and political opposition from Boris Johnson and Sadiq Khan, his successor as London mayor.
Heathrow is now using its collapse in passenger numbers during the pandemic to put pressure on ministers to produce a credible and coherent Covid-19 testing regime so that the airport — and Britain — can reconnect with the rest of the world.
The airport, owned by some of the world’s richest investors, including the sovereign wealth funds of Qatar and China, reported that it has been overtaken by Charles de Gaulle airport. In the first nine months of this year it handled 18.97 million passengers. Its rival in Paris handled 19.27 million passengers in the July-to-September quarter. Amsterdam’s Schiphol, with 17.6 million passengers in the three months, and Frankfurt, Germany’s main hub with 16.16 million, are not far behind, Heathrow said.
The airport is laying the blame for its passenger crisis, during which it has plunged to a £1.5 billion loss in the first nine months of the year, squarely at the UK government’s door.
“All three continental rivals have implemented testing regimes,” it said. Heathrow has been lobbying UK ministers since airspace began to reopen again in June to act and says that it hopes the government sticks to its plan to implement a testing regime by December 1.
Heathrow now expects to handle 22.6 million passengers in 2020, compared with a previous prediction of 29.2 million. For 2021, it reckons that it will handle only 37.1 million, less than half the number it would have expected in normal times and down from June, when it said it that would handle 62.8 million for that year.
Stephen Phipson, chief executive of Make UK, which represents manufacturers, said: “Heathrow slipping from its leading position gives the impression that the UK is closed for both business and tourism at a time when we need to be opening our doors ever wider.”
Clive Wratten, chief executive of the Business Travel Association, said: “It’s disappointing but unsurprising. The numbers show that, with every day, we fall further behind in our aim to be a truly global Britain.”
The CBI said that the slowdown at Heathrow affected millions of jobs across the country. Virgin Atlantic, a big Heathrow operator, said that the slowdown was directly hitting 500,000 jobs in the aviation sector.
Adam Marshall, director-general of the British Chambers of Commerce, said: “This is the inevitable consequence of the UK government being too slow to establish a satisfactory testing standard, which is the key to limiting the need for quarantines and to re-establishing critical business connections around the world.”