Heathrow airport’s Christmas bears might be cute – but here’s why they are deceptive


A cynic takes apart the Heathrow Airport Christmas ad at their peril. This is the third winter in which Europe’s busiest airport has sought to counter the darkening skies with a heartwarming message involving animatronic bears that share transportational DNA with Paddington. 

In 2016, the message across the ursine universe was: “Coming home – the best gift of all.” The following year, Heathrow took a spin through the decades with “Closer this Christmas”. So it is no surprise to be told by the airport this festive season: “Making it home makes it Christmas.”

This time around Doris and Edward Bair are living in the Sunny Days Retirement Village in the Florida Keys. They realise that it’s not beginning to look an awful lot like Christmas. So they fly to Heathrow and join their extended family.

The message: airports connect us. Shouldn’t you be getting closer to your nearest and dearest?

Millions of people will be doing just that this Christmas, with three million passengers passing through Heathrow in the peak spell from Friday 21 December to Friday 4 January.

But they won’t all be having the effortless journey depicted by this cute Christmas tale.

The fortunate furry flyers always seem to be travelling to Heathrow in a plane with a remarkably low load factor, ie one with heaps of empty seats. Over Christmas and New Year that is most unlikely to be the case – a good thing from the point of view of the environment, since empty planes dramatically enlarge the per-passenger carbon footprint.

The planet’s health will not have been eased by the likelihood that the inbound plane from Florida will have flown around in circles over the Home Counties for some time.

“Heathrow Airport schedules holding into the system,” says the air-traffic control provider, Nats. “Holding is actually a very efficient way of ensuring an airport with constrained runway capacity, like Heathrow, makes maximum use of the landing slots it has available.”

Perhaps the 2026 Christmas commercial will be able to reflect the opening of the third runway, which is supposed to happen that year and may reduce the amount of “stacking”.

As many arriving passengers at Heathrow will testify, once you land your problems may only just be beginning. Data provided by Virgin Atlantic this summer indicated that UK Border Force queueing time targets at Heathrow were met only one day in July – like December, a peak month at the airport.

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Heathrow Airport, for all its limitations, is part of an airport network that extracts astonishing capacity from constrained infrastructure that has barely changed since the end of the Second World War. By the end of this year, London will strengthen its hold on the title of aviation capital of the world with around 160 million arrivals and departures.

More business trips, holidays and family reunions begin or end in the airports serving London than any other city on earth. But the last thing the capital needs is for more people to be encouraged to fly home for Christmas, when airports are bursting at their overstretched seams.

Next winter I recommend the sloth (yes, that’s the collective noun) of UK-based bears head for Florida instead, for an average high of 25C on 25 December. While fares from Heathrow to Miami look expensive, there are some really cheap deals to nearby Fort Lauderdale. From Gatwick.

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