Heathrow experiences worst year in history with passenger numbers at 1972 levels

Lukas Bischoff Photograph / Shutterstock.com

London Heathrow (LHR) experienced the worst year in its history in 2021, the operator of Britain’s largest airport has revealed.  

Passenger numbers at LHR fell 12.3% to 19.4 million in 2021. That’s the lowest number of travelers since 1972, according to Heathrow. The airport also said it was the only European hub to see a drop in passenger numbers in 2021, blaming the UK’s tighter travel restrictions.  

In terms of finances, pre-tax losses for Heathrow in 2021 reached £1.8 billion ($2.4 billion). Added to the loss of £2 billion ($2.7 billion) from 2020, that means Heathrow has racked up cumulative losses of £3.8 billion ($5.2 billion) during the pandemic. 

Among LHR’s main rivals, Amsterdam Schiphol saw passenger numbers rise 22% to 25.5 million in 2021, Paris-Charles de Gaulle saw traffic increase 17.7% to 26.2 million passengers, while Frankfurt recorded 24.8 million passengers in 2021, a 32.2% rise.  

In a statement on February 23, 2022, Heathrow CEO John Holland-Kaye described it as the “worst year in Heathrow’s history”. 

Traffic numbers were also behind expectations in January and February 2022 due to the Omicron wave of COVID-19 affecting travel demand. But the airport said it was optimistic for the summer and was rebuilding operations, including plans to reopen Terminal 4 by July.  

“Demand is now starting to recover and we are working closely with airlines to scale-up our operations and reopen Terminal 4 for the summer travel peak,” Holland-Kaye commented.  “We’re excited to welcome more passengers back to Heathrow to experience the joys of travel and get Britain’s economy firing on all cylinders again.”  

The airport said it had enough liquidity for the recovery but was keeping an eye on cashflows to avoid breaching financial covenants.   

Heathrow has been trying to secure approval for a third runway for decades. While expansion efforts were paused during the pandemic, the airport said it will review plans in 2022. 


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