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Heathrow no longer Europe's biggest airport as it slams lack of passenger testing

Tom Belger
·Finance and policy reporter
·2 min read

Watch: Heathrow loses title of Europe's busiest airport

Heathrow airport has lost its status as Europe’s biggest airport, with bosses warning the UK was playing catch-up on coronavirus testing for passengers.

Heathrow Limited said on Wednesday it had been overtaken on passenger numbers by Paris’ Charles de Gaulle airport for the first time, with Amsterdam Schiphol and Frankfurt “close behind.”

The company significantly revised down its 2021 forecasts as the coronavirus pandemic and restrictions continue to hit air travel, predicting 37.1 million passengers next year. It had forecast 62.8 million in June, a sharp decline on 2019 levels but still a significant recovery compared to the 22.6 million journeys now expected this year.

“The reduction is caused by the second wave of COVID and slow progress on introducing testing by the UK government to reopen borders with “high risk” countries,” it said in its third-quarter results. “All three continental rivals have implemented testing regimes.” Heathrow has begun implementing outbound testing itself, however.

The company reported growing losses of £1.5bn ($1.95bn) in the first nine months of the year, with passenger numbers down more than 84% in the third quarter. Revenue slid 72% year-on-year to £239m.

Celia Gonzalez arrives at Heathrow Airport's Terminal 5, after people returning from Spain were told they must quarantine when they return home.
Celia Gonzalez arrives at Heathrow Airport's Terminal 5, after people returning from Spain were told they must quarantine when they return home. Photo: PA

The company said its finances remained “robust” despite the crisis, with liquidity increased to £4.5bn and cash reserves enough to last 12 months “even under an extreme scenario with no revenue.” It said it had retained its investment-grade credit rating.

It also said it was protecting jobs, “offering frontline colleagues a job with market-rate salaries guaranteed at or above the London Living Wage.”

But unions have hit out at pay cuts, with Heathrow reporting it has slashed at least £300m in operating costs and scrapping or shelving plans for £650m of capital projects. “Further savings are planned, but we are protecting employment,” it said.

READ MORE: Heathrow says jobs ‘guaranteed’ but staff face pay cuts

94% of credits have agreed a waiver on financial covenants, it added.

John Holland-Kaye, Heathrow CEO, said: Britain is falling behind because we’ve been too slow to embrace passenger testing. European leaders acted quicker and now their economies are reaping the benefits.

“Paris has overtaken Heathrow as Europe’s largest airport for the first time ever, and Frankfurt and Amsterdam are quickly gaining ground. Let’s make Britain a winner again. Bringing in pre-departure COVID tests and partnering with our US allies to open a pilot airbridge to America will kickstart our economic recovery and put the UK back ahead of our European rivals.”

Watch: BA owner cuts flights and posts heavy losses