Heathrow airport boss quits after turbulent year

<span>Photograph: Neil Hall/EPA</span>
Photograph: Neil Hall/EPA

Heathrow’s chief executive has announced his resignation after a difficult year for Britain’s biggest airport. John Holland-Kaye will leave his £1.5m role at some point in 2023 after nine years in charge.

His tenure included the long battle to win the right to expand, with the third runway still officially back on the table after court battles and lukewarm government approval.

The airport has suffered billions in losses during the Covid pandemic and has had a chequered recovery, briefly losing its spot as Europe’s busiest airport and coming in for heavy criticism from its main airline customers for imposing a cap on passengers in the peak summer season.

John Holland-Kaye
John Holland-Kaye at a conference in London last summer. Photograph: Yui Mok/PA

Heathrow’s chair, Paul Deighton, said Holland-Kaye had been “an extraordinary leader of Heathrow”, adding: “During the past nine years, he has worked tirelessly and collaboratively with shareholders, ministers, airlines and other stakeholders to ensure the country can be proud of its front door.”

Holland-Kaye took over in 2014, being promoted from development director when he oversaw the building of Terminal 2. He was credited with improving customer satisfaction, while his idiosyncratic leadership included making workforce “mojo” one of the airport’s official four strategic priorities.

A smooth public operator, he won government backing for a third runway to be built, despite widespread opposition from environmental groups. However, a new government, judicial reviews, falling passenger numbers during the pandemic and concerns about investment levels stalled the project.

Heathrow still hopes to expands its capacity by around 50% by building the runway, raising the prospect of more than 240,000 additional flights a year over London. Speaking at an aviation conference earlier this week, Holland-Kaye said that more details of renewed plans for the controversial plan would be unveiled later this year.

Meanwhile, relationships with some major airlines soured in a blame game for the turbulent 2022 summer, as passenger demand soared for international travel after the pandemic. Emirates criticised Holland-Kaye and initially refused to comply with Heathrow’s capacity limits in the summer, amid rows over who was responsible for the staffing shortages that caused cancellations and delays in 2022.

Holland-Kaye will also be stepping down after a bitter row over landing charges, with old frenemies such as Iata boss Willie Walsh – ex-CEO of British Airways’ owner IAG – accusing him of “gouging” airlines. A final decision over the level of charges will be confirmed by the regulator, the UK CAA, in March.

Heathrow’s board has started looking for his successor. Leading internal candidates are Emma Gilthorpe, the chief operations officer, who was previously a director overseeing strategy and planning, including the expansion of the airport. Chief financial officer Javier Echafe is also a possible contender, with Madrid-based Ferrovial remaining the largest single shareholder.

Holland-Kaye will remain in post to ensure a smooth handover later in 2023.