Heathrow has busiest start to year since before Covid lockdowns

Heathrow airport had its busiest start to the year since before the coronavirus pandemic lockdowns in 2020 as travel restrictions continued to ease, according to data published on Monday.

More than 5.4 million passengers travelled through the UK’s and Europe’s busiest airport in January, double the 2.6 million from 2022, Heathrow said in a statement to the London Stock Exchange.

In January 2020 the airport had recorded its best ever start to the year, with 6.1 million passengers, despite early signs that the virus was spreading rapidly from China, where it was first detected, to the rest of the world. The UK did not shut its borders officially until March 2020, when passenger numbers plunged.

Barring pandemic years, Heathrow still counted the smallest number of passengers since January 2015.

As coronavirus pandemic restrictions eased Heathrow struggled with rapid increases in flight numbers. In the summer it imposed capacity limits on airlines after failing to hire enough people in time to cope with extra traffic.

As the February half-term holiday got under way over the weekend for many schools, Heathrow said on Monday it had been coping “very well” with the rush.

The airport said it was supporting the UK Border Force’s introduction of eGates for passport control for 10- and 11-year-olds over half-term, a measure that could help to reduce waiting times for families arriving in the UK.

Heathrow’s passenger numbers were boosted in January by a sharp increase in traffic from the Asia Pacific region, which almost tripled year on year to 764,000. Asian countries including China have retained travel restrictions for considerably longer than the UK.

China lifted quarantine restrictions on inbound travel for the first time in three years on 8 January, after it also relaxed many domestic restrictions. The easing of restrictions prompted a huge wave of coronavirus infections in a population that had been less exposed during leader Xi Jinping’s earlier zero-Covid policy. Travellers from China to England must take a pre-departure coronavirus test.

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Heathrow said it welcomed announcements by the long-haul carriers British Airways and Virgin Atlantic that they were restarting Chinese ticket sales, “reopening a key market for British exports once more”. The reopening of China is likely to benefit other parts of the aviation industry, including the long-haul jet engine maker Rolls-Royce.

John Holland-Kaye, the airport’s chief executive, said it was “back to its best”. Holland-Kaye this month said he would step down after nine years in charge of the airport, a turbulent period that included approval for a controversial third runway despite the objections of environmental campaigners, and a public falling out with airlines last summer as the staff shortages caused cancellations and delays.