Heathrow Tops 80 Million Passengers as Runway Plan Nears Crunch

(Bloomberg) -- London Heathrow joined an exclusive club of global airports serving more than 80 million passengers a year as carriers deployed bigger jets to overcome the limitations of the facility’s two crowded runways.

Europe’s busiest hub became only the seventh worldwide to pass the mark as the 2018 customer tally increased by 2.7 percent or 2.1 million, even though it was able to add just 0.2 percent more flights, according to a statement Friday.

Heathrow’s runways have been crammed since the start of the decade, leading airlines including British Airways to upgauge to larger jets such as Airbus SE’s A380 superjumbo and the latest A350 or squeeze more seats onto existing models. Occupancy levels have also climbed.

Based on 2017 figures, Atlanta Hartsfield is the world’s busiest airport with 103 million passenger, though Beijing, with 95 million has narrowed the gap in recent years. Dubai ranks third after breakneck growth and the 80-million club also includes Tokyo Haneda and Los Angeles.

Heathrow’s passenger figures, which may preserve its status as Europe’s top hub for another year, come as the airport prepares to face a court challenge in March to its 16 billion-pound ($22 billion) plan for a third runway that would lift annual capacity to 135 million travelers. If that hurdle is cleared the project is likely to come to fruition.

London Gatwick, Heathrow’s closest U.K. rival, increased its passenger total just 1.1 percent in 2018 to 46.1 million, held back by the constraints of having just one runway. The biggest hub for EasyJet Plc was passed over for expansion when the government backed the new strip at its bigger neighbor.

Manchester Airport, Britain’s third-busiest, boosted its passenger count 1.7 percent to 28.3 million, though it may be overtaken this year by sister hub London Stansted, which trails by just 300,000 after 8.2 percent growth in 2018.

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.