Last month, at least 600,000 people cancelled flights from Heathrow Airport when the Omicron coronavirus strain prompted tighter travel restrictions.
Heathrow boss John Holland-Kaye said it highlighted the industry’s problems and the unpredictability that travellers face.
The chief executive of the UK’s busiest airport cautioned that a return to normal “may be years away.”
In 2021, only 19.4 million passengers travelled through Heathrow, down 12.3% from 2020, when the pandemic began.
In 2019, the number of passengers was less than a fourth of what it was before the pandemic.
Due to concerns about the Omicron Covid strain, all visitors arriving in the UK were forced to do a pre-departure lateral flow test and self-isolate until they had a negative result from a post-arrival PCR test starting in late November.
As a result, many people decided to cancel their holiday trip plans.
Last week, the new requirements were relaxed for fully-vaccinated newcomers after travel companies claimed they were ineffectual due to Omicron’s widespread in the UK.
“Travel restrictions, such as testing, are currently in place on all Heathrow lines; the aviation sector will only completely recover when they are all gone and there is no chance of them being re-imposed at short notice, which is unlikely to happen for years,” says Mr Holland-Kaye.
He cautioned the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), the aviation regulator, that this would create “enormous uncertainty” as it prepared to put a five-year maximum on Heathrow’s passenger charges.
From January 1, the CAA raised the Heathrow passenger pricing maximum from £19.60 to £30.19, causing airlines to complain that the increase was far too high.
In the next few weeks, the CAA is likely to publish a long-term cap that will last until 2027.
Heathrow reported a 40.3 per cent drop in travel to and from the Asia-Pacific region in 2021, compared to the previous year.
Non-EU Europe (down 13.8%) and North America (down 13.6%) were the only other markets to experience double-digit declines. Domestic travel defied the trend, increasing by 21.1 per cent in 2020 compared to the previous year.