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Emirates Airline refuses to comply with Heathrow’s demand to cut flights

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The airline industry has been hamstrung by a perfect storm of challenges over recent weeks, from labor shortages and supply disruptions to rising fuel prices.

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DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — Emirates Airline has harsh words for London’s Heathrow Airport, the U.K.’s largest aviation hub currently beset by travel chaos.

Earlier this week, Heathrow made a demand to airlines to stop selling summer travel tickets, after imposing a cap of 100,000 passengers per day departing the airport in order to cut down long lines, cancellations and baggage retrieval delays.

Emirates, Dubai’s flagship airline and one of the largest long-haul carriers in the world, is refusing to comply, calling Heathrow’s decision “unacceptable” and accusing its management of “blatant disregard for customers.”

And it appears determined to continue its scheduled flights, despite what it said was threat of legal action by Heathrow.

It is “highly regrettable that LHR last evening gave us 36 hours to comply with capacity cuts, of a figure that appears to be plucked from thin air,” Emirates said in a statement issued Thursday.

“Their communications not only dictated the specific flights on which we should throw out paying passengers, but also threatened legal action for non-compliance. This is entirely unreasonable and unacceptable, and we reject these demands.”

International passengers walk through the arrivals area at Terminal 5 at Heathrow Airport on November 26, 2021 in London, England.

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Emirates said that its ground handling and catering staff at London Heathrow, which is run by its subsidiary dnata, “are fully ready and capable of handling our flights.” Therefore, it said, “the crux of the issue lies with the central services and systems which are the responsibility of the airport operator.”

The London-Dubai route is one of Emirates Airline’s busiest, and those flights — six per day since October 2021 — have consistently had high occupancy for the past 10 months, so Heathrow should have been prepared for this, Emirates said.

“Now, with blatant disregard for consumers, they wish to force Emirates to deny seats to tens of thousands of travellers who have paid for, and booked months ahead, their long-awaited package holidays or trips to see their loved ones,” the Emirates statement read.

“And this, during the super peak period with the upcoming UK holidays, and at a time when many people are desperate to travel after 2 years of pandemic restrictions.”

The UAE airline added that 70% of its customers flying from Heathrow “are headed beyond Dubai to see loved ones in far flung destinations, and it will be impossible to find them new onward connections at short notice.”

“Until further notice, Emirates plans to operate as scheduled to and from LHR,” it said.  

Heathrow’s response

In a statement, a Heathrow spokesperson said that the aviation network “continues to suffer from Covid-related challenges” and that a key issue is “airline ground handling teams which are currently only resourced up to 70% capacity to serve passenger demand,” which it says has rebounded to roughly 85% of pre-pandemic levels.

“For months we have asked airlines to help come up with a plan to solve their resourcing challenges, but no clear plans were forthcoming and with each passing day the problem got worse,” the statement added.

“We had no choice but to take the difficult decision to impose a capacity cap designed to give passengers a better, more reliable journey and to keep everyone working at the airport safe.”

Suitcases are seen uncollected at Heathrow’s Terminal Three baggage reclaim. The U.K.’s biggest airport has told airlines to stop selling summer tickets.

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The spokesperson noted that the 100,000-person cap for departing passengers is still much higher than the cap of 64,000 imposed at Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport, which in 2021 was ranked the busiest airport in the world by passenger traffic.

Heathrow’s average daily passenger count for both departing and arriving passengers is 219,458, split about evenly between the two, according to the airport’s website. Dubai is its second-most popular departure destination after New York.

“It would be disappointing if instead of working together, any airline would want to put profit ahead a safe and reliable passenger journey,” the Heathrow statement said.

Continuing travel chaos

Major flying hubs and airlines are getting heat for what industry analysts say is a failure to plan and prepare for the resurgence in travel demand, two years after the Covid-19 pandemic forced a tidal wave of layoffs.

Particularly in North America and Europe, travelers have described chaos at airports, with scores of flights canceled or delayed, luggage lost and wait times to board planes exceeding four hours. That’s partly the result of labor shortages from the pandemic, as layoffs have put pressure on airports and airlines facing a surge of summer passengers eager to travel.

Air industry executives have defended airport operators and airlines, saying that the system is “rusty” after two years of decreased activity and that it will take some time to get operations up and running smoothly again.

But that’s done little to ease the frustration of customers and airlines losing money and flights.

“LHR chose not to act, not to plan, not to invest,” Emirates Airline’s statement said, using the acronym for the airport. “Now faced with an ‘airmageddon’ situation due to their incompetence and non-action, they are pushing the entire burden – of costs and the scramble to sort the mess – to airlines and travellers.”

“The shareholders of London Heathrow should scrutinise the decisions of the LHR management team,” it added.

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