Heathrow airport slaps caps on departing passenger numbers as travel chaos continues

London's Heathrow Airport is capping daily passenger departure numbers at 100,000 for the summer and telling airlines to stop selling tickets in an effort to quell travel chaos caused by soaring demand and staff shortages.

Britain's busiest airport says it's setting a daily limit of 100,000 departing passengers

Travellers queue at security at London's Heathrow Airport in this photo taken June 22. Faced with overwhelming consumer demand, Heathrow says it will cap the number of travellers going through the airport at 100,000 people daily for the summer. (Frank Augstein/The Associated Press)

London's Heathrow Airport asked airlines to stop selling tickets for summer departures on Tuesday, after it capped the number of passengers flying from the hub at 100,000 a day in an effort to quell travel chaos caused by soaring demand and staff shortages.

Britain's busiest airport said Tuesday that it's setting a limit of 100,000 departing passengers that it can handle each day through Sept. 11. The restriction is likely to result in more cancelled flights even after airlines already slashed thousands of flights from their summer schedules. 

U.K. aviation authorities demanded that airlines ensure they can operate without disruption over the summer, with carriers not punished for not using their valuable takeoff and landing slots.

Even with that allowance, Heathrow, which had warned a day earlier that it may ask airlines to cut flights further, said it still expected more passengers than airport ground staff could handle.

"Some airlines have taken significant action, but others have not, and we believe that further action is needed now to ensure passengers have a safe and reliable journey," Heathrow CEO John Holland-Kaye said in an open letter to passengers.

Airlines are expected to operate flights over the summer with an overall daily capacity of 104,000 seats, or 4,000 more than Heathrow can handle, the airport said. Only about 1,500 of these daily seats have been sold to passengers.

"So we are asking our airline partners to stop selling summer tickets to limit the impact on passengers," Holland-Kaye said.

Airlines, airports overwhelmed by demand boom

Booming demand for summer travel after two years of COVID-19 travel restrictions have overwhelmed European airlines and airports that had laid off tens of thousands of pilots, cabin crew, check-in staff, ground crew and baggage handlers amid the depths of the pandemic.

Heathrow has said it started a recruiting drive in November and expects security staffing to be back to pre-pandemic levels by the end of July.

"However, there are some critical functions in the airport which are still significantly under-resourced, in particular ground handlers, who are contracted by airlines to provide check-in staff, load and unload bags and turnaround aircraft," making it a "significant constraint" to overall capacity, Holland-Kaye said.