Stock London Heathrow Airport UK Britain passengers
London Heathrow Airport Image Credit: AP

London Heathrow Airport passenger traffic fell 12% in 2021 after successive waves of COVID-19 disrupted travel in the second year of the pandemic.

The UK hub, the busiest in Europe in normal times, catered to 19.4 million passengers in 2021, it said Tuesday in a statement. Long-distance services were particularly hard-hit, with passenger counts falling 40% to the Asia-Pacific region, where COVID-zero policies have led to extended lockdowns.

The emergence of the omicron variant and ensuing patchwork of border restrictions drove away at least 600,000 passengers in December, the airport said. While travel got a boost after the UK. eased some curbs last week, passenger counts last year were less than one-quarter of 2019 levels and below 2020.

A full recovery is still years away, Heathrow Chief Executive Officer John Holland-Kaye said in the statement. He called on regulators to focus on measures that will improve service, ease financial stress and rebuild demand - including the removal of all testing requirements.

"The aviation industry will only fully recover when these are all lifted and there is no risk that they will be reimposed at short notice, a situation which is likely to be years away," Holland-Kay said.

The CEO reiterated a demand for the UK's aviation regulator to allow it to raise charges, saying that it should "focus on an outcome that improves service, incentivizes growth and maintains affordable private financing."

The UK's Civil Aviation Authority has allowed Heathrow to temporarily lift fees to 29.50 pounds ($40) per passenger - less than the airport sought but more than airlines want to pay.

A final decision for a five-year rate plan will be made later this year.