In an unprecedented move, British Airways has withdrawn all short-haul flights from its main base, London Heathrow no earlier than August 9.
BA, which operates more than half of its flights from London Heathrow Airport, said: “We have decided to take responsible action.”
While intercontinental flights are still available, imminent domestic and European departures are blocked for the new sales.
These are the key questions and answers.
Why did BA do this – it just ran out of seats?
No. Many of the airline’s departures at Heathrow still have empty seats.
This decision, which will cost the airline a fortune, was made for two reasons:
BA has already canceled tens of thousands of Heathrow flights because it doesn’t have enough resources to operate them, but it looks like it may not be enough.
Why is the Heathrow cap in place?
Three weeks ago, the UK’s biggest airport said the airport had “a number of critical functions that continue to be under-resourced, particularly ground handling”. These are companies that airlines use to staff check-in, bag loading and unloading, and manage aircraft arrivals and departures.
Earlier in the summer, says Heathrow, when the number of departing passengers regularly exceeded 100,000 a day, there were unacceptable “queuing times, delays for passengers requiring assistance, bags not traveling with passengers or arriving late, poor punctuality and cancellations at the last minute.”
Reduce the number of passengers departing, Heathrow believes, and you reduce the risk of anything happening. So between now and 9/11 a limit of 100,000 people was put in place.
Don’t airlines usually make hay while the sun shines?
They certainly do. During the Covid-19 pandemic, carriers have accumulated huge debts. They are desperate to pay and the summer of 2022 should provide that opportunity.
During times of high demand – and this summer is extreme in terms of people wanting to fly – airlines can make huge profits by selling the last seats shortly before departure. For example, the last seats on Ryanair’s morning flight from Manchester to Alicante are selling for £336 one-way, compared to just £27 three months later for an identical 1,050-mile flight.
For a leading global airline such as British Airways, the decision to stop selling tickets from its main base to regional airports in the UK and continental Europe during the most profitable month of the year is unprecedented.
How does the BA move affect travelers from other parts of the UK?
This narrows down the choices considerably. For example, there are plenty of options from Glasgow to London on Tuesday 2 August, with seven flights to London Heathrow with fares from £117. But returning north, you can only choose one of two flights: Gatwick for £504 or London City for £266.
Connecting routes such as Edinburgh to Rome will simply have nothing available next week, while passengers looking for flights from Belfast to Faro are being told to transfer from arriving at Heathrow to departing from Gatwick.
Are existing BA bookings affected?
No, although in an attempt to ease the pressure on numbers, the airline is offering flexibility to anyone booked on a short-haul flight between now and August 7.
“You can book a British Airways service for free on any date within the next 12 months from the original date of travel, subject to availability.
“Alternatively, you can request a voucher for the value of your booking and when you’re ready to use your voucher to book new flights, you can do so online.”
The voucher is valid for travel until September 30, 2023.
How long can this BA policy last?
I asked the airline when Heathrow seats might go back on sale, but the airline wouldn’t say. British Airways said in a statement: “As a result of Heathrow’s request to limit new bookings, we have decided to take responsible action and limit the available fares on some Heathrow services to help maximize re-booking opportunities for existing customers, given the restrictions imposed on us and the ongoing challenges we face the entire aviation industry is facing.”
Rob Burgess, editor of frequent flyer website Head for Points, said: “It is very possible that ticket sales will be limited until the end of the summer – at least until we get past the August bank holiday.
“Those needing to travel from Heathrow in August on a British Airways service and who have not yet booked a ticket should consider booking as soon as possible when bookings for additional dates close.”
Do other airlines do similar things?
Responses to the Heathrow restriction vary from one airline to another. Some canceled flights and transferred passengers to other flights if possible. Any passenger whose flight is suspended is entitled to be transported to their destination on the first day on any air carrier that has space available.
Other airlines have restricted access to Heathrow flights for staff traveling on discount tickets.
And some simply take off with a significant number of empty seats.
Could this become a regular summer sight?
No. Airlines are angry that their earning potential is limited. John Grant of timetable analyst OAG predicts that around 20,000 seats from Heathrow could go unsold each day.
He said: “Overall, London Heathrow needs to reduce the number of passengers handled at the airport by around 1,375,000 by September, and this is a huge loss of revenue.”
Mr Grant estimates the cost at perhaps half a billion pounds.
Heathrow, which also loses money with every ‘absent’ passenger, will be looking at all areas of overcrowding ahead of the next peak spell, Christmas and New Year.
How The Independent suggestedpassenger capacity restrictions at Heathrow may persuade some airlines to add departures from other UK airports.