Emirates airline said on Thursday it had rejected demands by London’s Heathrow Airport to cut capacity despite being threatened with legal action, and intended to continue operating its six daily flights to Britain’s busiest airport.
Heathrow this week asked airlines to stop selling some tickets for summer flights, limiting the number of passengers flying from the hub to 100,000 a day to ease pressure on operations that have been unable to keep up with demand.
Emirates, owned by the government of Dubai, said Heathrow had given the airline 36 hours from Wednesday to reduce capacity on its six daily flights, which are operated with the Airbus A380 superjumbo.
“Their communications not only dictated the specific flights on which we should throw out paying passengers, but also threatened legal action for non-compliance,” the airline said.
“Until further notice, Emirates plans to operate as scheduled to and from (Heathrow),” it said in the statement.
Emirates, the world’s biggest operator of long-haul jets, relies on international flights for its operations. Heathrow is one of the world’s most important hubs, while Emirates has no domestic market to cushion from a drop in international traffic.
A Heathrow spokesperson said the airport had been forced to impose restrictions after months of consultations with airlines failed to deliver a solution, citing staff shortages as the main issue.
“We had no choice but to take the difficult decision to impose a capacity cap designed to give passengers a better, more reliable journey and to keep everyone working at the airport safe.”
“It would be disappointing if instead of working together, any airline would want to put profit ahead of a safe and reliable passenger journey,” the spokesperson added.
Other airlines, such as Aer Lingus, have said they were awaiting guidance from Heathrow on how capacity limits would impact them, while some such as Etihad Airways say they have been forced to reschedule flights at short notice.
Global airline association IATA has criticized the cuts.
Emirates said tens of thousands of passengers would be affected if the airline did reduce capacity and that it was impossible to rebook travellers as upcoming flights were full.
A single Emirates A380 can carry more than 600 passengers.
The airline accused Heathrow of incompetence and for having a “blatant disregard” for consumers. It urged Heathrow’s shareholders to scrutinise decisions by its management team. Emirates said dnata, a unit of parent Emirates Group that provides ground handling and catering services at Heathrow, was capable and ready to handle its flights there.
“So the crux of the issue lies with the central services and systems which are the responsibility of the airport operator.”
Heathrow and other European airports have capped passenger numbers to ease congestion caused by surging demand and staff shortages following huge layoffs during the pandemic.
Emirates said it was not practical to move flights to other British airports and that 70% of those flying out of Heathrow were booked to catch connecting flights from Dubai, highlighting the impact the cuts would have on the airline if enforced.
The showdown follows a row between airlines and Heathrow about increases in the airport’s charges per passenger.
Airlines have accused the airport of ignoring their warnings of surging demand in order to justify higher per-passenger charges, which tend to go up as the number of flyers goes down.
Heathrow rejects the accusations and says some airlines have themselves been slow to adapt to the post-pandemic travel rush. Emirates said signs that travel would rebound sharply have long been clear. Its own Heathrow flights have been in high demand for months.
“(Heathrow) chose not to act, not to plan, not invest,” Emirates said in a statement.
Analysts said it was not immediately clear how quickly the public standoff would escalate to involve other airlines.
“Heathrow is not going to want to provoke a legal battle with one of its major customers but how does it extricate itself from Emirates’ insistence on keeping flying,” said UK-based aviation analyst John Strickland.
Smaller airlines lack the Dubai carrier’s muscle while some large carriers have already “fallen on their sword,” he added.
Signs that trouble was brewing between the world’s largest international airline and Heathrow surfaced last month, when its president Tim Clark said the carrier had been given just hours’ notice to scrap an A380 flight at Heathrow.