All quiet on the Heathrow front?

Heathrow Airport (Steve Parsons - WPA Pool/Getty Images)

Thursday July 26 has been billed as Heathrow airport’s busiest day ever, but it may not turn out that way.

For months, BAA, Heathrow’s operator, had forecast that a record 244,000 passengers would pass through the airport, with numbers swelled by those converging on London for the Olympic games.

But on Thursday BAA cut its forecast to 227,000 arriving and departing passengers, which means July 26 would not beat the previous record of 234,000 set in July last year.

BAA said it was reducing its forecast because the number of passengers flying out from Heathrow on Thursday would be lower than expected because some had been put off by the threat of a strike by Border Force staff.

It admitted the reasoning was confusing – because departing passengers at Heathrow do not usually have to undergo immigration checks. However, BAA said some passengers had chosen to rebook outgoing flights scheduled for Thursday before the planned strike by the Public and Commercial Services Union was suspended on Wednesday.

Heathrow is still expected to see a record 125,000 passengers flying into the airport on Thursday, as foreign visitors, dignitaries and Olympic sponsors arrive for the games. The previous record of 123,000 arriving passengers was set in September last year.

And importantly for BAA, the airlines using Heathrow, and the government, the airport seems to be coping with the Olympics.

That is in stark contrast to the botched opening of terminal 5 in 2008, or the snow of 2010 that partially closed Heathrow for several days.

On Thursday, arriving passengers at terminals 5 and 3 said there were no long queues at passport control. Ministers appear to have brought an end to the embarrassing immigration lines at Heathrow this year by increasing Border Force staff.

And a small army of volunteers – working for BAA, Boris Johnson, London’s mayor, and the London Organising Committee of the Olympic Games – are ensuring the airport does not get clogged up with people. They were busy helping arriving passengers with queries, mainly about directions to their destinations.

The one smallish hiccup on Thursday was a suspension of the Heathrow Express train service between the airport and Paddington station during the morning because of a fire in Ealing. Service was restored after about one hour.

There are some bigger potential pitfalls for Heathrow next month. August 13 could well be its most difficult moment, when there are expected to be a record 130,000 passengers flying out of the airport that day, including many athletes heading home after the games. The challenge may not be so much the passengers but the estimated 203,000 bags they have with them – on a normal day the airport is dealing with 150,000 pieces of departing luggage.

To have a successful games, Heathrow’s various companies, led by BAA and the airlines, must ensure they do not lose the 203,000 bags or send them to the wrong destinations. If they pull that off, Heathrow’s reputation should merit a significant boost.