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As athletes, spectators and the London citizenry await the arrival of the 2012 Olympics, Heathrow airport is fixated on the finish line.
“Sixty-five percent of the Olympic family -- sponsors, media and athletes -- will leave the day after the closing ceremonies,” Nick Cole, head of London 2012 planning for airport operator BAA Ltd., said in an interview. “It’s simply a problem of volume. If we mess up that last day, it hurts Heathrow’s reputation.”
The Olympic and Paralympic Games will attract about 500,000 extra fliers to the U.K. from July 27 to Sept. 9, according to NATS, Britain’s airspace controller. Heathrow will bear the brunt, handling about 80 percent of the spectators, athletes, officials and media. The day after the closing ceremonies is expected to be the busiest day in the airport’s history.
Over the period, 12,850 Olympic athletes and 7,000 Paralympians will pass through Heathrow, according to BAA. Traffic will peak on Aug. 13, when 138,000 people will depart from the airport, a 45 percent increase from normal operations. More than 200,000 luggage items will be handled that day, including sports equipment like javelins, canoes and bicycles.
“It’s all about bags,” Cole said, speaking at Heathrow’s (FER) dedicated Olympic Games Terminal, 20 miles west of central London. “The average passenger coming into Heathrow has 1.7 bags. The athletes will average four. That’s a massive strain on our baggage system.”
Firearms for shooting events will be among the most difficult items, said Cole, a triathlete who served as an officer in the British Army. Oversize bags that don’t fit through regular X-ray machines will account for about 15 percent of luggage, compared with 3 percent on a normal day, he added.
To streamline the process, BAA has spent “well over” 20 million pounds ($32 million) on preparations, he said. That has covered training volunteers, setting up check-in facilities at the Olympic Village and building an athlete-only temporary departure terminal for the three days after the closing ceremonies.
“We won’t get anywhere near a 10th of that money back,” Cole said. “We’re keen to makes sure the Olympics goes well, but you could argue it’s more about reputation than money.”
The reputations of both Heathrow and London Gatwick, owned by BAA until 2009, were tarnished in the past decade as investment in facilities failed to keep pace with traffic. The operator, owned by Spain’s Ferrovial SA, misplaced tens of thousands of bags when Heathrow’s Terminal 5 opened in 2008, and the airport is at 99 percent of capacity.
“Success depends on a smooth-as-possible operation,” John Strickland, a London-based aviation analyst at JLS Consulting Ltd., said in an interview. “Any air traffic control difficulties, border control issues or weather that leads to backlogs can result in queues back to the gate, so really they are on a bit of a tightrope.”
The U.K.’s largest airlines, including British Airways and Virgin Atlantic Airways Ltd., raised concerns in March about potential delays at London airports during the 2012 Olympic Games. In a March 15 letter to U.K. Transport Secretary Justine Greening, the carriers said there was a “significant risk of severe delay and disruption” at all of London’s airports.
Extra immigration staff will be deployed at Heathrow to prevent delays to athletes and fans, U.K. Home Secretary Theresa May said on April 24. No private aircraft will be allowed to fly into Heathrow between July 14 and Sept. 14, Cole said.
Any problem could “rapidly escalate” if the volume isn’t handled correctly, Stickland said. “There is extreme sensitivity to the smallest issue.”
British Airways (IAG), owned by International Consolidated Airlines Group SA, is doing baggage trials to ensure systems can cope with the increased volume of equipment and luggage, spokeswoman Nicola Pearson said by e-mail.
The number of passengers using the four largest airports serving London -- Heathrow, Gatwick, Stansted and Luton -- rose 84 percent in two decades to 124.4 million in 2010, according to the Civil Aviation Authority. Some 42 airports in southeastern England will be linked into an allocation plan to coordinate landings of commercial flights, charters and business jets.
An estimated 70,000 people will depart from Gatwick in south London on Aug. 13, a 15 percent increase from a normal summer day, spokeswoman Sarah Baranowski said. Lanes for people with disabilities, families and premier-class passengers are in place to streamline security and immigration lines, and the airport has added wheelchairs and done “scenario tests.”
Because the Olympics takes place during the summer vacation season, discount airlines such as EasyJet Plc (EZJ) and Ryanair Holdings Plc (RYA) that tend to fill their planes won’t see a significant boost, said Douglas McNeill, an analyst at Charles Stanley Securities in London.
“The Olympics will be neutral for the airlines because it’s already an incredibly busy time,” McNeill said. “The Olympics is a national event, and British Airways and Heathrow benefit from being identified with national enterprise.”
EasyJet expects to fly more passengers in and out of London during the Olympic period than any other airline, spokesman Paul Moore said by telephone. The carrier started flying out of a fourth London hub at Southend Airport, about 30 minutes east of the Olympic Park by train, this year.
Stansted airport, also owned by BAA, has 50,000 people pass through its terminals on an average summer day. About 11,000 people travel through London’s City airport on average, while Luton Airport north of the city is expecting 31,000 additional passengers for the Olympics, 26,000 passengers on scheduled services and 5,000 on chartered aircraft.
McNeill is optimistic that airports will handle the inflow -- and perhaps the outflow.
“On the inbound tack, they’ll be okay, because not everyone will arrive at the same time,” he said. “There will be more of a pinch on the way out.” Heathrow, for one, “is used to coping with intense pressure.”
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