‘High hopes of a 2021 recovery dashed for Heathrow – as Omicron became the Scrooge which cancelled Christmas’

Susannah Streeter, Senior Investment and Markets Analyst at Hargreaves Lansdown, spoke to Business Leader about the effect of the Omicron variant on Heathrow Airport.

Omicron was the Scrooge which cancelled Christmas for thousands of passengers, with onerous testing requirements leading to a mass exodus from airports.

Heathrow Airport has revealed the extent of the drop in business, with 600 thousand passengers cancelling their travel plans through the airport in December alone.

Mass vaccination programmes failed to have the desired effect in 2021, in bringing the rebound in travel there had been such high hopes for this time last year.

The web of rules and regulations which was spun across different countries and regions and swept away, and then spun again as new variants emerged, clearly led to a drop in confidence in the travelling public. The threat of expensive hotel quarantines following a rapid rule change and the risk of being left stranded overseas if testing positive were hardly a relaxing prospect for holidaymakers wanting to get away from it all.

It means there was a lacklustre uplift in customers of 12% compared to 2020, and for 2021 as a whole, Heathrow handled just 19.4 million passengers – less than one-quarter of pre-pandemic levels.

It’s little surprise Heathrow airport is now calling for the scrapping of all tests for fully vaccinated passengers and instead for a predictable playbook to go by, in the event of fresh variants of concern.

Despite hopes for pent up demand to translate into a bounce-back in bookings this year, the industry looks set to face a long haul recovery ahead. Many consumers are faced with an income squeeze, which is likely put to expensive holidays out of reach. Others might have splashed their piles of savings on other luxury treats instead. Among some older travellers who may still have the cash to spare, there is still a lingering fear of the new variants and they are likely to keep putting off booking that once coveted overseas trip.

The spring/summer season is set to get warmer for Heathrow in terms of business, but it’s unlikely to be the scorcher the travel industry, and the retail and hospitality businesses which rely on transport hubs, sorely need.