As United Ramps Up Flights to Europe, Europe’s Largest Airport Says the Travel Bubble is Due to Burst

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Whose word do you take in this aerial battle: the airline’s or the airport’s?

This Tuesday, United, one of America’s Big Four airlines, announced plans to fly to Europe even more this summer than it did before the Covid pandemic shut down almost all routine travel. Bosses at London’s Heathrow, the largest airport on the continent, said the aviation industry should be ready for this “summer travel bubble” to be met with a “winter freeze.”

Apologies, Your Optimism Has Been Delayed

United says it will make 25% more trips across the Atlantic this spring and summer than in 2019, including upping its service to London. “We have not seen any softness in terms of demand,” Patrick Quayle, United’s senior VP for international, said Tuesday, noting that includes eastbound flights to destinations like Germany and Croatia, which are closer to the war in Ukraine.

The US carrier will begin flying a total of 30 new or resumed routes over the next eight weeks, including service for the first time to Bergen, Norway, and the Spanish islands Mallorca, Tenerife, and the Azores. In the meantime, Heathrow says the arriving-soon summer rush won’t last long, and its financial impact could be exaggerated:

  • Heathrow raised its 2022 passenger forecast from 45.5 million to 52.8 million, which is just 65% of pre-pandemic traffic. The premier UK air hub, which has already lost over £4 billion, said it expects to keep losing money through the rest of the year, and that the current boost in travel won’t last.
  • “We’re seeing people who haven’t been able to travel getting in as many trips as they can when they can, and using up vouchers,” Heathrow CEO John Holland-Kaye told The Guardian. “Clearly that bubble is not sustainable.”

Call His Bluff: Virgin Atlantic, one of Heathrow’s biggest clients, accused the airport of drumming up concern so it could jack up already lofty landing fees, which were last raised by 37% in January, ever farther skyward. “Despite the return of travel at scale, Heathrow is seeding doubt in the strength of demand so it can seek excess returns to shareholders and secure an unjustified increase in charges that would hurt UK competitiveness and consumers,” said the airline in a statement characteristic of its maverick founder’s unflinching manner.