Stock London Heathrow Airport UK Britain passengers
Heathrow restricted passenger numbers during the peak travel period this summer to help alleviate chaotic check-in operations. Image Credit: AP

London: London’s Heathrow Airport said businesses at the hub need to embark on a massive hiring spree to rebuild depleted staffing ranks that contributed to a chaotic travel season across much of Europe this past summer, even as passenger numbers will need at least until the middle of the decade to return to pre-pandemic levels.

Heathrow served 81 million passengers in 2019, and CEO John Holland-Kaye said the circumstances to allow for that kind of level are “unlikely to return” until 2025 or even 2026. Business travel is still at only half the level of pre-pandemic volumes, and leisure bookings could feel the pinch from increased cost of living, he said.

“We’re not fully back to normal yet,” John Holland-Kaye said in an interview after the company reported earnings. “We also have the impact of the war in the Ukraine and the risk that that might escalate, rising cost of living, rising interest rates, global slowdown and possibly recession. So there’s plenty of headwinds that we are facing.”

The CEO put the level of hiring requirements at 25,000 people, which he said is the number that businesses at Heathrow lost during Covid, partly due to cost cuts, partly because employees left the industry to find work in areas like package delivery. Before the pandemic, there were about 75,000 people working across 400 different companies at Heathrow, from baggage handling to the actual airlines to supply chain, he said.

The airport operator said it has established a task force to help fill vacancies and is working closely with the government on a review of airline ground handling, a line of work that often requires special security clearance.

“The sooner we get back to full capacity, the sooner we can get back and get away from any risk of having to put a cap on demand to keep supply and demand in balance,” Holland-Kaye said.

Heathrow, alongside other major airports in Europe, restricted passenger numbers during the peak travel period this summer to help alleviate chaotic check-in operations. The airport said today that it plans to end blanket capacity restrictions on passenger numbers this month, opting instead for brief curbs where needed on peak days during the Christmas holidays.

Europe’s biggest hub said its “highly targeted mechanism” would allow airlines to encourage demand into less busy periods and avoid flight cancellations. The hub made the announcement as it reported a 442 million pound ($507 million) loss for the nine months through September 30, despite catering to 18 million passengers this summer, a higher number than any other European hub, it said in a statement today.