Virgin Atlantic’s boss has warned that Heathrow’s expansion will be “difficult to support” without an overhaul of regulation at the airport.
Heathrow plans to build a third runway, but it has been delayed by a number of legal challenges and the coronavirus pandemic.
Virgin Atlantic chief executive Shai Weiss was speaking at the Airlines 2022 conference in Westminster when he said that his airline’s support of the third runway had gone from “unequivocal” to “tentative”.
Mr Weiss blamed Heathrow’s efforts to charge passengers much more to use the runway, saying: “We would support a third runway if – and only if – Heathrow remains competitive.”
He said Heathrow’s request to introduce a “120% price hike in per passenger charges” would have been “a bad deal for consumers, airlines and the UK economy”.
Airlines had “fought long and hard” to make sure the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) did not allow this, he said, urging the government to “pay closer attention to the abuse of power by a de facto monopolistic airport”.
Mr Weiss accused Heathrow of being too focused on “excessive dividends” for its mostly foreign shareholders, saying it should instead be more fairly priced and open to competition.
Heathrow Airport Holdings is owned by FGP Topco Limited, a consortium owned by companies from Spain, Qatar, Canada, Singapore, the US, China and the UK’s Universities Superannuation Scheme.
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Speaking again about the CAA, Mr Weiss said: “The regulatory framework and process is simply not working – it is broken and must be reformed.
“It must better balance the interests of airport shareholders with those of passengers and consumers.
“It must incentivise Heathrow’s owners to deliver an airport that is priced fairly and open to competition, focused on delivering a quality experience for airlines and their passengers, rather than excessive dividends for shareholders.
“Until that is achieved, it is difficult to see how expansion at Heathrow can be supported.”
The chief of Virgin Atlantic – which is owned by Richard Branson’s Virgin Group with a 51% stake and US airline Delta with a 49% stake – also criticised Heathrow’s handling of the months of disruption earlier this year.
The airport had struggled on for weeks through delays and cancellations due to staff shortages, before capping the number of passengers going through its terminals in early July to 100,000 a day.
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Mr Weiss said the CAA must not allow Heathrow to “sleepwalk into another entirely avoidable period of disruption”.
“Everyone in this room will recognise the damage to consumer confidence that summer disruption caused,” he told those at the conference.
“A repeat of this in summer 2023 is completely avoidable if honest and accurate passenger forecasts are used now for resource planning and building resilience.”
Heathrow’s chief executive John Holland-Kaye has insisted that the airport is not planning passenger caps for next summer.
A Heathrow spokesman said: “To deliver the airport service passengers expect, two things are needed: for our regulator to give us the ability to invest in the airport; and for all the operators at the airport to work together building back capacity.
“These are our focus right now.
“Our efforts are firmly directed towards the constructive engagement and collaboration with the regulator and with the airlines to deliver great service for passengers this Christmas and into next year.”
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