Heathrow has lost its first-place position to Paris Charles de Gaulle (CDG), reflecting the difficulties the UK aviation industry is facing.

Chief executive of Heathrow John Holland-Kaye said that in the third quarter of 2020, passenger numbers fell by 84%. The airport also lost £1.5bn in the first nine months of the year, an average of £5.5m per day.

The drop in passenger numbers has enabled Paris CDG to overtake Heathrow, which has held the position for multiple decades, which will come as a huge blow to the industry and the UK economy.

Heathrow saw 18.97 million passengers in the year to the end of September compared to the 19.27 million at CDG. Both are followed closely by Amsterdam’s Schiphol (17.6 million) and Frankfurt in Germany (16.16 million). For comparison, in 2019, Heathrow serviced 80.8 million passengers while Paris CDG served 76.1 million.

Despite its financial difficulties, the company said its liquidity position was strong and it had sufficient cash reserves for the next 12 months, even in the worst case if travel is stopped completely.

Britain’s Covid-19 response has been blamed

Heathrow’s particularly poor performance has been influenced by the slow government response to passenger testing when compared to other European counterparts, which could have helped kickstart air travel.

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Heathrow and other players in the UK aviation industry have been calling for coronavirus testing to provide an alternative to quarantine since April. While testing centres are now operating for outbound passengers at the airports, they are only located in Terminals 2 and 5.

In another blow to Heathrow and other UK airports, travel restrictions were tightened once again recently, ruining any hopes for a recovery in the foreseeable future.

Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said his wishes to have post-arrivals testing up and running in the UK by 1 December. If achieved, this would reduce the amount of time arrivals from high-risk destinations have to spend in quarantine from 14 days to just a week.

As prolonged isolation is seen as a major deterrent to travel, this could spur passenger arrivals if implemented. However, whether this will come into fruition remains uncertain, given the government’s past record.

Future outlook for aviation industry looks bleak

Earlier this week, Airports Council International Europe said that it expects nearly 200 European airports to face insolvency in the coming months. It also estimates that these airports between them facilitate 277,000 jobs and €12.4bn of European GDP.

The International Air Transport Association, which represents 290 global airlines, estimates that air traffic will not return to pre-pandemic levels until at least 2024. As a result, the outlook for Heathrow and many other airports is bleak.