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Heathrow may never recover airport top spot in Europe, says analyst

Plane Talk: Istanbul’s main hub handled more than twice as many passengers as the UK’s leading airport in August

Simon Calder
Travel Correspondent
Tuesday 05 October 2021 16:09 BST
Sun setting: a British Airways Boeing 747 at Heathrow, in the days when it was Europe’s premier airport
Sun setting: a British Airways Boeing 747 at Heathrow, in the days when it was Europe’s premier airport (Simon Calder )

Eighteen months into the coronavirus pandemic, Britain’s busiest airport remains way behind European rivals – with a leading aviation analyst questioning whether it will ever recover its previous top spot.

Ralph Anker, editor of The Anker Report, said Heathrow is now back in the top 15 of European airports. But his assessment of airport traffic in August 2021 shows it finished 13th in passenger numbers, behind both Palma de Mallorca and the secondary Paris airport, Orly.

In the peak summer month, Heathrow lost 71 per cent of its 2019 traffic, and handled fewer than half as many passengers as Istanbul.

Another Turkish airport, Antalya, took second place in the European airports league. Almost none of the passengers were British, due to Turkey remaining on the UK’s “red list” until late September.

Moscow’s Sheremetyevo was third in Europe, followed by the three main hubs in Continental Europe: Amsterdam, Paris and Frankfurt. Each handled over 50 per cent more passengers than Heathrow.

Mr Anker told The Independent: “The gradual easing of travel restrictions on passengers returning to the UK has seen, what was for many years Europe’s busiest airport at Heathrow, finally break back into the top 15 of Europe’s busiest airports in August, having fallen to 17th in June.

“However, with Turkey’s newish mega-hub in Istanbul currently handling more than twice as many passengers as Heathrow, it may take quite a while before the UK’s busiest airport makes it back to the top spot, if it ever does.

“At the current rate of progress Heathrow might make the top 10 in September, but it’s too early to say just yet.”

Flights to and from the UK remain well below those from other major European countries, which the aviation industry blames on severe government travel restrictions.

London Stansted ranked 32nd in Europe in August, with passenger numbers down 60 per cent compared with 2019. Gatwick has fared far worse, down 79 per cent. In 2019 Gatwick was Europe’s 10th busiest airport; by August 2021, it had fallen to 37th.

The long-established premier league of UK airports has seen some significant changes. While Heathrow is unassailable in top position, the August passenger numbers revealed by the Civil Aviation Authority show two airports – Stansted and Belfast International – doing relatively well in a dismal commercial environment.

Stansted has leapfrogged both Gatwick and Manchester, with the latter two slipping one place.

Belfast International’s relative success appears to be down to there being no swift terrestrial alternative for journeys to and from Great Britain.

Edinburgh airport has slipped to seventh place in the UK, below Birmingham. The Scottish capital has evidently been hit harder by the UK government’s effective shutdown of inbound tourism than the English Midlands.

A snapshot of European aviation operations on Monday 4 October shows UK flights 41 per cent below the same day in 2019.

According to the director-general of Eurocontrol, Eamonn Brennan, the next worst performer is Germany, down 36 per cent, with France and Italy both down 28 per cent.

Greece actually showed a tiny increase, with 0.2 per cent more flights on 4 October compared with the same date in 2019.

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