Heathrow says travel may not return to pre-Covid levels until 2026

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Heathrow airport has warned that air travel may not recover to pre-Covid levels until 2026 despite improving passenger numbers in the past three months, as it reported that losses since the start of the pandemic have reached £3.4bn.

The airport said international travel could be “on the cusp of a recovery” but it faced a “long road ahead”.

Heathrow reported its first quarter of passenger growth since the start of the pandemic as the loosening of restrictions begins to unleash pent-up demand.

Passenger numbers in the three months to the end of September recovered to 28% of pre-pandemic levels, while cargo climbed to 90% of its levels in the equivalent period in 2019.

Related: Heathrow passenger charges could rise by up to 56% by 2023

Despite the increase in recent months, Heathrow’s losses have grown over the year as a whole. Passenger numbers for the first nine months reached 10.2 million, compared with 19 million for the same period last year.

As a result, Heathrow reported a loss of just over £1bn for the nine months to the end of September, compared with a loss of £786m in the same months last year. The company warned in its results announcement that traffic may not recover fully for up to five years.

John Holland-Kaye, the Heathrow chief executive, said the UK was “on the cusp of a recovery which will unleash pent-up demand, create new quality jobs and see Britain’s trade roar back to life …But it risks a hard landing unless secured for the long haul.”

Holland-Kaye called for a focus on the global vaccination programme to hasten the reopening of international travel without testing requirements, and called for “fair” financial regulation.

The Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) last week cleared Heathrow to significantly raise its landing charges from next summer but ruled out the airport’s proposal for a near-doubling of charges.

Heathrow had called for the charges to range from £32 to £43 a passenger, as it sought to recoup losses caused by the coronavirus pandemic, well above the interim cap proposed by the CAA for next year at £30 a customer.

The airport said the regulator’s proposals did not go far enough to ensure that investors could achieve a fair return, which was vital to securing future private investment.

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