Heathrow is reporting its busiest January since Covid, but new strikes loom over the Easter break

Travelers at Heathrow, which handled 81 million passengers in 2019 (Steve Parsons/PA) (PA Wire)

Travelers at Heathrow, which handled 81 million passengers in 2019 (Steve Parsons/PA) (PA Wire)

Heathrow airport today unveiled its busiest start to a year since the pandemic hit, sparking hopes of a London recovery from Covid, but January traffic figures came along with the threat of more travel chaos from the Easter strike.

The capital’s main international gateway handled more than 5.4 million people in the month, the most since 2020. It also said the current holiday season was going very well, with peak demand for school holidays posing a major test for the airport during reconstruction staffing to cope with the resurgent demand.

But Heathrow is also facing new disruption from union action, which could threaten the forthcoming Easter breakfast for Londoners, as well as the smooth arrival of international tourists vital to much of the capital’s economy.

About 3,000 workers in the hub, who directly employ about 76,000 people, will be voted on strike action by the Unite union. The vote will cover engineers, firefighters and security guards after they reject a 10% pay raise.

Heathrow – also the busiest airport in the UK and Europe with 81 million passengers in 2019 – was battered by a bitter industry row over how to deal with the spike in travel demand after Covid travel restrictions were lifted.

In what became known as “the flightmare,” the airport ran short of staff after ground crews and other support staff were laid off during the pandemic. After scenes of lengthy delays and greater chaos surrounding Queen Elizabeth II’s Platinum Jubilee holiday, Heathrow introduced a cap on airfare sales throughout the summer holidays.

The decision sparked anger among carriers and fueled a furious war of words between key industry figures. Former Heathrow chairman Sir Nigel Rudd and Willie Walsh, who ran British Airways, blamed each other’s previous employers in a rowdy public clash with letters to the press. Rudd said Walsh had an obsession with cutting costs that made the airline a “laughing stock”, while Walsh called Heathrow’s management “a bunch of morons”.

The current CEO, John Holland-Kaye, received £2.6 million in salary and bonuses in 2019, having received £4 million in 2018, with industry analysis showing his remuneration package was around three times that of comparable jobs at competing international airports. He will step down in 2023 after nine years in charge, but will remain in office until a successor is appointed.

Claiming today that “Heathrow is back to its best”, Holland-Kaye pointed to “passenger satisfaction scores meeting or exceeding 2019 levels”, adding: “We are extending a warm welcome to families over the holidays for half the time by providing excellent service and bringing back the magic of travel.”

Sharon Graham, Unite’s general secretary, accused Heathrow of “gross hypocrisy”, saying it “paid telephone number salaries to its CEO and senior managers, but the workers who make the company a success are on poverty wages”.

The airport said it has coped with recent strikes by Border Force personnel, aided by automated eGates, which are now being trialled for use by children aged 10 and 11.

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