Heathrow airport hits out over three government policies that are damaging to the UK

Britain’s busiest airport has attacked the government for “curtailing the UK’s global connectivity” by introducing more red tape for transit passengers and scrapping tax-free shopping.

Announcing its traffic figures for April 2024, Heathrow’s bosses deplored three specific government policies:

  • “The introduction of unnecessary visas for transiting passengers.

  • “The absence of tax-free shopping.

  • “The recently proposed hike in business rates.”

The airport says ministers should “take a cross-government approach to policymaking that supports UK aviation’s global competitiveness”.

The British government has gone far further than any other nation in demanding that all non-UK passengers in transit through Heathrow – the main hub airport – must obtain an Electronic Travel Authorisation (ETA) in advance.

Not only does this cost an additional £10 on top of the air fare, it also adds a delay of up to three days and extra red tape.

Heathrow’s rivals – Amsterdam, Frankfurt and Paris CDG – have no such hurdles except for a few specific nationalities. They are expected to pick up a significant proportion of Heathrow’s business as a result.

ETAs were first introduced in November 2023 and are currently being enforced for nationals of Qatar, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Jordan.

The government says the rollout “will continue throughout 2024”.

A government spokesperson said: “Requiring transit passengers to obtain an Electronic Travel Authorisation ensures we are making the border more secure, and stops people who may use connecting flights to avoid gaining their permission to travel to the UK when they do not have it.

“We are keeping this under review as we continue to roll out the scheme.”

Tax-free shopping and VAT refunds on purchases for visitors to Britain ended on 1 January 2021, the day the UK fully left the EU. They were scrapped by Rishi Sunak, who was chancellor at the time.

Kwasi Kwarteng, chancellor under Liz Truss’s brief premiership, vowed to reinstate them. But this U-turn was itself reversed by his replacement, Jeremy Hunt, when Rishi Sunak became prime minister.

The government spokesperson said: “VAT-free shopping remains available for all non-UK visitors buying items in store and having them sent directly to their overseas address.

“The UK aviation industry is one of the best in the world and we remain committed to supporting airports to boost our global connectivity and grow our economy.”

Heathrow returned to profit last year after suffering heavy losses during the Covid pandemic.