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Heathrow hit by 600,000 cancellations over Omicron

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Watch: Heathrow demands all testing is dropped after 600,000 passengers cancelled Christmas flights

Heathrow issued a downbeat update on Tuesday after 600,000 passengers cancelled flights in December due to concerns surrounding Omicron and COVID-19 restrictions.

The UK’s largest airport, which has suffered since the coronavirus outbreak ripped into the travel sector, handled just 19.4 million passengers during 2021 as a whole. This was less than a quarter of 2019’s figures, and came in 12% lower than 2020 when it saw 22.1 million.

Travel to and from the Asia-Pacific region last year slumped 40.3% from a year earlier, while other markets with double-digit reductions included non-EU Europe, a fall of 13.8%, and North America, which dipped 13.6%.

Domestic travel bucked the trend, however, with a 21.1% boost in passengers compared with 2020.

It said there was “significant doubt” over the speed at which travel demand will recover in the long-haul in light of the ongoing pandemic, and urged the government to remove all testing for full-vaccinated travellers.

It also called for any additional measures to be limited to passengers from high-risk destinations and allow quarantine at home instead of in a hotel.

Read more: European stock markets climb as traders look to benefit from recent dips

IATA forecasts suggest passenger numbers will not reach pre-pandemic levels until 2025, provided travel restrictions are removed at both ends of a route, and passengers have confidence they will not quickly return.

John Holland-Kaye, chief executive of Heathrow, said: “There are currently travel restrictions, such as testing, on all Heathrow routes – 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.

“While this creates enormous uncertainty for the CAA in setting a new 5-year regulatory settlement, it means the regulator must focus on an outcome that improves service, incentivises growth and maintains affordable private financing.”

A passenger heads through the transit system between terminals at Heathrow Airport in London, Britain, Jan. 7, 2022. Earlier Wednesday, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson led a cabinet meeting where he recommended sticking with England's Plan B, which includes work-from-home guidance and mandatory face masks in most public indoor venues.   It's also been announced that pre-departure testing is no longer required for travellers returning to Britain.    According to the new measures, arrivals do not have to isolate until they get a negative PCR test, but instead have to take a lateral flow test at the end of day two after arriving. (Photo by Tim Ireland/Xinhua via Getty Images)
The UK’s largest airport, which has suffered since the coronavirus outbreak ripped into the travel sector, handled just 19.4 million passengers during 2021 as a whole. Photo: Tim Ireland/Xinhua via Getty Images

The Civil Aviation Authority said last October that Heathrow could increase charges by up to 56% by 2023 as it seeks to recover heavy losses from the health crisis.

It increased the cap on Heathrow's price per passenger from £19.60 ($26.63) to £30.19 ($40.01) from 1 January, sparking complaints from airlines that the rise was far too high.

Heathrow is due to reveal its 2021 annual results next month.

“The web of rules and regulations which was spun across different countries and regions and swept away, and then spun again as new variants emerged, clearly led to a drop in confidence in the travelling public,” Susannah Streeter, senior investment and markets analyst, Hargreaves Lansdown.

“The threat of expensive hotel quarantines following a rapid rule change and the risk of being left stranded overseas if testing positive were hardly a relaxing prospect for holidaymakers wanting to get away from it all.”

She added: “Many consumers are faced with an income squeeze which is likely to put expensive holidays out of reach. Others might have splashed their piles of savings on other luxury treats instead. Among some older travellers who may still have the cash to spare, there is still a lingering fear of the new variants and they are likely to keep putting off booking that once coveted overseas trip.

Watch: PM maintains Plan B measures despite rising Omicron cases

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