Virgin Atlantic Airways Ltd. called on regulators to ensure London’s Heathrow airport returns to full capacity next summer and linked his support for a third runway to measures that improve competition with British Airways, such as Virgin’s own dedicated terminal.
Chief Executive Officer Shai Weiss is concerned that 2023’s peak season will see a repeat of capacity caps imposed by the hub earlier this year amid staffing shortages, he said Monday at the Airlines 2022 conference in London.
Britain’s Civil Aviation Authority “must not allow our only hub airport to sleepwalk into another entirely avoidable period of disruption,” Weiss said. “It should be responsive and accountable to its customers and cannot be allowed to unilaterally restrict capacity.”
Heathrow imposed a cap of 100,000 departing passengers a day through much of the summer schedule amid a lack of workers. While that limit was removed at the end of October, CEO John Holland-Kaye has warned the customer tally won’t match the pre-pandemic level of 81 million until 2025 or even 2026.
Weiss, who has previously accused Heathrow of playing down the strength of the recovery as it seeks CAA permission to hike fees, said the hub must make more “honest and accurate passenger forecasts” in its resource planning.
Heathrow initially forecast a passenger tally of 45 million this year but now projects as many as 62 million, and regained its status as Europe’s busiest airport over the summer.
The hub had also intended to impose ad hoc curbs on capacity in the lead up to Christmas, but dropped the plan amid pressure from Virgin and other operators.
Weiss said that Virgin Atlantic, controlled by billionaire Richard Branson, would like to see Heathrow go ahead with plans for a third runway but will only provide full backing if growth plans are accompanied by steps to boost competition.
“We would support a third runway if and only if more competition is provided,” he said. “We’ve learned a lot over the last few years through the pandemic and the last consultation on the charges to refine our unequivocal support to a more tentative support.”
Heathrow also needs “massive renovation” and new thinking around its business model, Weiss said. That could include a switch to airline-owned infrastructure as seen in the US, so that Virgin would be able to operate a dedicated terminal, just as British Airway does, he said.
Regarding higher fees, Weiss said that a 120% uplift sought by Heathrow would be “great for the airport and its mostly foreign shareholders, but a bad deal for consumers, airlines, and the UK economy.”
A decision on prices is likely later this year or early in 2023. CAA chief Richard Moriarty said in an interview at the conference that the regulator plans to issue an update before Christmas, without commenting further.