Travellers planning a late break this month face higher fares and disruption that could last until September, experts have warned, after British Airways extended its suspension of short-haul ticket sales from Heathrow airport.
The British flag carrier, the largest operator from Heathrow, said on Tuesday that it would be suspending sales until August 15 — a week longer than first announced 24 hours earlier.
The move will affect BA’s domestic and European routes, as well as flights via Morocco and Cairo.
BA blamed the suspension on Heathrow’s decision last month to impose a daily limit of 100,000 passengers on departures from the airport until September 11, a reduction from 104,000 seats originally scheduled for the summer. Heathrow introduced the cap to avoid more travel disruption.
The airline said it was acting responsibly to comply with the cap and ensure it could protect existing bookings.
It added: “When Heathrow introduced its passenger cap, we took a small number of additional flights from our schedule . . . to continue to comply with the cap, we’ve been limiting sales or all the available fares on some of our Heathrow services to ensure more seats are available to rebook customers.”
Heathrow said on Tuesday it had acted to “provide better, more reliable journeys this summer”. The airport said it was pleased BA was “acting responsibly and also putting the passenger first”.
While travel plans for holidaymakers who have booked in advance will not be affected, experts warned the decision would limit capacity and lead to higher fares for those wanting to book last minute.
“This will cause severe inconvenience for anyone planning to book a last minute summer break or business trip,” said Rob Burgess, editor of frequent flyer website headforpoints.com.
“There are no alternative carriers from Heathrow for all of BA’s short-haul routes and even where alternatives exist those carriers will also face Heathrow-imposed capacity constraints,” he added.
There was a “high chance” that the ban would get extended beyond August 15, said Burgess. “Even if you are not travelling on BA, the loss of capacity in the market will automatically lead to higher fares for anyone travelling from other London airports.”
Paul Charles, chief executive of travel consultancy PC Agency, said airlines were expecting to have to keep cutting capacity until early next month, given the Heathrow cap was due to stay in place until September 11.
As the largest carrier operating from Heathrow, BA is the most affected. About two-thirds of the airline’s flights from the airport serve short-haul destinations. BA had already trimmed its original summer flight schedule by 13 per cent, or about 30,000 flights, to help stabilise its operations.
Charles estimated that 10 to 15 per cent of seats on flights would be empty as a result of the decision to suspend ticket sales and warned that the continuing restrictions threatened to undermine people’s belief “that flying is easy”.
“If you can’t get a flight at the last minute to sign an urgent business contract, or to see a dying relative, that will affect your confidence in how easy it is to travel,” he said.
“We are almost going back to the 1970s of higher seat prices, less availability and less flexibility to travel at short notice,” he added.
Martin Ferguson, vice-president of public affairs at American Express Global Business Travel, said the situation had “added yet more complexity to an already volatile business travel environment”.
People who had been planning to book and travel this week have been calling the company for advice and reassurance, “putting more strain on the system”, he added.
Heathrow is not the only airport to introduce a cap. London Gatwick and Amsterdam Schiphol have also introduced passenger limits in response to the staff shortages. Schiphol on Tuesday extended its cap through to October.
Some experts stressed that BA’s decision should ultimately minimise additional disruption.
“It is worth remembering that it is a short-term measure affecting short-haul routes only and follows similar moves by other European airlines,” said Hugh Aitken, vice-president of flights at Skyscanner.
“Building resilient summer schedules, including in response to the restrictions Heathrow has imposed, is airlines’ number one priority and something the whole industry is focused on,” said Airlines UK, the industry trade body.