The number of passengers at Britain’s biggest airport slumped by 73% in 2020 to the smallest annual total since 1975 due to the travel restrictions caused by the Covid-19 pandemic.
Just 22.1 million travellers passed through Heathrow last year, 59 million fewer than in 2019. December figures were higher than November, rising to 1.1 million as Britain came briefly out of lockdown, but finished 83% below the previous December as the new variant of Covid-19 led to more border closures and halted many flights.
Cargo volumes for the year were down 28.2%, with dedicated cargo flights helping to counteract lost capacity in the belly hold of passenger planes.
Although Heathrow cut its costs by slashing pay, mothballing two terminals and operating on one runway for most of the year, it said the industry was “fighting for survival” and called for more government action to restart travel and assist the struggling sector.
The chief executive, John Holland-Kaye, said: “The past year has been incredibly challenging for aviation. While we support tightening border controls temporarily by introducing pre-departure testing for international arrivals, as well as quarantine, this is not sustainable.”
He called on the government to “show leadership” and work to create a common international standard for pre-departure testing, adding: “The aviation industry is the cornerstone of the UK economy but is fighting for survival. We need a roadmap out of this lockdown, and a full waiver of business rates.”
Heathrow’s call came after easyJet announced it had secured another £1.4bn five-year loan to help shore up its finances during the pandemic. The loan is underwritten by a syndicate of banks and partially backed by the British state, through its UK Export Finance arm.
The airline said the loan would enable it to repay and cancel about £800m of shorter-term debt. The airline’s chief executive, Johan Lundgren, said: “This facility will significantly extend and improve easyJet’s debt maturity profile and increase the level of liquidity available. EasyJet has taken swift and decisive action, having now secured more than £4.5bn in liquidity since the beginning of the pandemic.”
EasyJet follows other companies in aviation and aerospace, including British Airways and Rolls-Royce, in using UK Export Finance guarantees to help shore up their balance sheets during the pandemic.
Hopes for a return to flying in early 2021 that were raised by the approval of Covid vaccines have been largely dampened by the virus variant discovered in the UK and the subsequent renewed travel restrictions. EasyJet now plans to cut its schedule to domestic connections and a few international flights.
The UK government announced last week it would also demand all incoming travellers produce a recent negative Covid-19 test, a move that aviation bodies said they accepted as necessary but increased the need for financial assistance to survive.