Heathrow has pledged to work with the government’s Global Travel Taskforce to seek a prompt restart of international travel after the airport’s monthly passenger numbers feel to their lowest level since England last lifted the World Cup.
The airport’s February passenger numbers slumped to below 500,000, the lowest level since 1966. Heathrow cited the ongoing effect of Covid travel restrictions, including the ban on all but essential travel, quarantine, and pre-departure and post-arrival testing.
Chief executive John Holland-Kaye also acknowledged significant border issues at Heathrow after the airport’s chief operating officer Emma Gilthorpe confirmed to the government’s home affairs select committee on Wednesday (10 March) that six-hour queues at border control were currently not uncommon.
"We are working with the prime minister’s Global Travel Taskforce to facilitate the safe restart of international travel after 17 May," said Heathrow. "The aim should be to simplify and standardise the checks that are required, with a goal of returning to travel as it used to be.
"We are now preparing to restart operations safely, working with all companies across the airport. Our biggest single concern is the ability of Border Force to be able to cope with additional passenger numbers, given recent unacceptable queue times."
Holland-Kaye added: “Aviation has always led the UK economy out of recession, and we will do so again. The Global Travel Taskforce can lead the way on reopening international travel and trade safely, but ministers must get a grip of Border Force’s performance so visitors get a warm welcome to Britain – not a six-hour queue."
Speaking to the BBC, Border Force director Nick Jariwalla said large numbers of passengers were continuing to arrive into the country without pre-purchasing their mandatory testing packages for the second and eighth day of their 10-day quarantine requirement, which he said was causing delays owing to fines and other necessary enforcement action at the border.
He added he made no apology for enforcing the regime, stating every essential check would help limit the spread of Covid. "These people should not have been allowed to travel without their testing packages and we are following up with regulators and carriers to ensure the law is enforced."
Passport control staff at Heathrow represented by the PCS union last month voted for strike action over changes to their working rotas. No strike dates have yet been set.
Just 461,000 people arrived at Heathrow in February; 118,000 arrivals came from EU countries, 95,000 from the Asia Pacific region and 57,000 from the Middle East.
There were 55,000 arrivals from Africa and just 5,000 from Latin America. Much of Latin America and southern Africa is currently on the government’s Covid red list, meaning direct arrivals must quarantine at government-appointed hotel accommodation for 10 days upon their arrival.