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London's Heathrow Airport caps daily passenger numbers to quell summer travel chaos

European airports see summer travel chaos
European airports see summer travel chaos 04:42

London's Heathrow Airport is capping daily passenger numbers for the summer and telling airlines to stop selling tickets as it steps up efforts to quell travel chaos caused by soaring travel demand and staff shortages. 

Britain's busiest airport said Tuesday that it's setting a limit of 100,000 passengers that it can handle each day through September 11. The restriction is likely to result in more canceled flights even after airlines already slashed thousands of flights from their summer schedules.

U.K. aviation authorities demanded that airlines ensure they can operate without disruption over the summer, with carriers not punished for not using their valuable takeoff and landing slots.

Even with that allowance, Heathrow, which had warned a day earlier that it may ask airlines to cut flights further, said it expected more passengers than airport ground staff could handle.

"Some airlines have taken significant action, but others have not, and we believe that further action is needed now to ensure passengers have a safe and reliable journey," Heathrow CEO John Holland-Kaye said in an open letter to passengers.

Flight cancellations cause holiday travel nightmare 02:09

Airlines are expected to operate flights over the summer with an overall daily capacity of 104,000 seats, or 4,000 more than Heathrow can handle, the airport said. Only about 1,500 of these daily seats have been sold to passengers.

"So we are asking our airline partners to stop selling summer tickets to limit the impact on passengers," Holland-Kaye said.

Travel chaos extends throughout Europe

Heathrow's actions make it the second major European airport to limit passenger numbers at its hub in order to improve operations that have been overwhelmed by demand. 

Amsterdam Schiphol Airport announced a temporary cap on passenger numbers between July 6 and August 28 of this year. According to the latest limitations, approximately 67,500 passengers will be allowed per day at the airport in July. The daily cap will be raised to 72,500 in August.

Heathrow said it started a recruiting drive in November and expects security staffing to be back to pre-pandemic levels by the end of July.

"However, there are some critical functions in the airport which are still significantly under-resourced, in particular ground handlers, who are contracted by airlines to provide check-in staff, load and unload bags and turnaround aircraft," making it a "significant constraint" to overall capacity, Holland-Kaye said.

Major delays and cancellations have also occurred at airports like Amsterdam, Dublin, Frankfurt and Lisbon. The situation in Amsterdam was so serious, the Netherlands issued an unprecedented order telling airlines to suspend ticket sales until the end of July. That almost immediately drove up the price of airfares — which are now sky high. On many trips within Europe, the train is rapidly becoming a very attractive option.

Delays and cancellations are likely to continue, as airlines struggle to hire new workers and train new employees quickly.

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