Airports hit back at Emirates’ Heathrow criticism, accusing airlines of trying to talk down charges

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After the boss of Emirates called for the resignation of Heathrow’s chief executive, the body representing airports has hit back – accusing airlines of seeking to influence a decision this week on airport charges.

Emirates, one of the biggest carriers at Heathrow in terms of passengers flown, reacted furiously in July when the airport placed a cap of 100,000 on departing travellers in order to keep numbers manageable.

Now Sir Tim Clark, chief executive of the carrier, has called for the resignation of Heathrow CEO John Holland-Kaye.

After the Heathrow boss hinted that airlines might once again face a cap over Christmas and New Year, Sir Tim told the Sunday Times: “That’s inexcusable. Anybody who says anything like that is the wrong guy for the job.”

Addressing Mr Holland-Kaye, he said: “Your job is to be up there and out there looking after consumers, not bellyaching about not being able to get staff. We did what we had to do – workarounds. Sitting on your hands and saying ‘ho hum’ – it’s delinquent.”

Willie Walsh, director-general of the International Air Transport Association (Iata), joined in the criticism of Heathrow, saying: “Its performance has been a disgrace.”

Mr Walsh, former chief executive of British Airways, said the airport’s predictions on passenger numbers had been “way, way wrong” – vastly underestimating the scale of the bounce back in travel.

But Heathrow’s management team believe the criticism from airlines has been timed just ahead of a crucial Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) decision on charges at the airport.

A Heathrow spokesperson said: “It is disappointing that Iata has sunk to making unjustified personal attacks in an effort to influence the CAA board to set a low airport charge which would maximise airline profits at the expense of investment in consumer service.

“Our focus has always been on doing what’s right for consumers. When the industry faced challenges scaling-up this summer, we acted to protect consumer service at Heathrow.

“Our interventions were more targeted than other European hubs and have been shown to be the right thing to do.”

The regulator sets limits on what Heathrow can charge, and is currently considering future charges. In June 2022 the CAA said the average maximum fee of £30.19 should decline to £26.31 in 2026.

Heathrow received strong support from Baroness Ruby McGregor-Smith, chair of the Airport Operators Association.

She described the comments on Heathrow as “unfavourable and unjustified” and accused airlines of seeking “to influence the CAA around airport charges”.

Baroness McGregor-Smith said: “There were no easy answers when the pandemic shut down our industry overnight.

“The UK aviation sector is far more complex and fragmented than Middle Eastern hubs where airlines, airports and ground handlers are all owned by the state and funded through public subsidy instead of private finance.

“Heathrow and all other UK airports did not receive the funding they required from the UK government. Heathrow went from one of the world’s busiest airports, to a business that lost £5m a day, and over £4bn in total, during the pandemic.

“The fact that it has scaled-up more than any other European hub after being cut off from most markets during Covid and receiving absolutely zero state subsidy is a huge achievement for the UK – and to do so with passenger service scores now almost on par with 2019 levels is even better.”

In a swipe at airlines that have cut staff numbers, Baroness McGregor-Smith added: “In the face of huge uncertainty Heathrow acted to protect colleagues and retain jobs for everyone on the frontline who wanted one – not all businesses can say this.”

A Heathrow source said that airlines have raised fares so high in response to surging post-Covid demand that any increase in airport charges would barely be noticeable.

The CAA said in the summer: “It has become clear that both Heathrow Airport Ltd and the airlines using the airport have starkly divergent views on the level of charges for the next five years.”

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