Heathrow must provide “absolutely stellar” service to passengers desperate to fly again as the pandemic winds down, the boss of one of the UK’s biggest airlines has said.
Shai Weiss, chief executive of Virgin Atlantic, said the airport needed to return to normal capacity as quickly as possible rather than “reduce supply” in an apparent desire to offer greater financial benefits.
The airport, which has regained its position as Europe’s busiest, is expected to carry between 60 and 62 million passengers this year – a quarter less than in 2019, before covid had a catastrophic effect on the airline industry.
Heathrow last week lifted a self-imposed cap of 100,000 passengers per day that had been imposed over the summer in a bid to curb canceled flights, queues and baggage chaos caused by a shortage of 25,000 employees.
But he said it was “unlikely to be able to return to pre-pandemic demand for a number of years except at peak times”, despite making a profit of £643m this year.
Mr Weiss, speaking to the Evening Standard on Virgin’s inaugural flight from Heathrow to Tampa, its third Florida destination, said Heathrow was downplaying the strength of return passenger demand.
He said Virgin was ready for the peak of the Thanksgiving and Christmas season – and said Heathrow had had ample time to similarly prepare.
“During summer, [Heathrow chief executive] John Holland-Kaye said Heathrow had once again become the busiest airport in Europe,” he said.
“We should pursue this and ensure that everyone who wants to leave Heathrow can and will do so. We are ready to operate and they should be too.
“I’m glad they’ve removed the restrictions over the next few months – they’re not needed.
“Heathrow has a big responsibility here. It is the gateway to the UK. Responsibility runs deep, just as we have a responsibility to our customers. They understand that.
“But cutting back on supply to win an economic argument and not doing everything they could 18 months, 12 months and six months ago is just not good enough.
“From now on, all efforts should not be limited to enriching their already wealthy shareholders. It should be about delivering absolutely exceptional operational performance in the service of consumers.
Virgin Atlantic has become increasingly dependent on Heathrow since its operations at Gatwick Airport closed in 2020 due to the pandemic.
The firm, which also operates from Manchester, and from Edinburgh to Orlando in the summer, had to receive financial assistance from its “big brother” shareholder, the American carrier Delta Air Lines.
A Heathrow spokesperson said: “For more than a year we have been recruiting at a record pace – building our own teams and helping partners, such as airlines and ground service providers, to connect people local job seekers to their vacancies.
“The revival of aviation remains a collective challenge. Each of the 400 companies operating here has a role to play, and we will continue to bring everyone together to deliver for passengers this Christmas and next year.
Mr Weiss said Virgin had exceeded its expectations this year, with revenue slightly higher than 2019 despite around 20% less capacity.
The company, founded by Sir Richard Branson in 1984, wants to boost sales in the United States to 40% of its revenue at a time when the weak pound is attracting American travelers to London.
“Florida is the crown jewel of our US operations,” Mr. Weiss said. “People think of Tampa for its beautiful beaches, but it’s also a very important hub for business.
“I’ve said it many times, if you want to see the real King for half the price, fly Virgin Atlantic. For American travelers and businesses, coming to the UK is really very attractive.