Heathrow Defies Capacity Cap as A380 Aids Passenger Increase

London’s Heathrow airport, which has operated close to capacity since the start of the decade, added 2.4 million passengers last year as airlines eked out seats by operating bigger planes including the Airbus A380.

Europe’s busiest hub attracted 72.3 million travelers in 2013, up 3.4 percent on 2012’s 69.9 million, even as the number of flights stagnated, according to a statement today. Seats per aircraft increased by 2.8 percent on average.

Heathrow is fighting for the opportunity to build a third runway after being limited by the flight capacity of its two existing strips. Carriers have responded by boosting the average size of jets there, led by a surge in A380 operations that have made the airport the third-busiest in the world for the superjumbo, according to Airbus, up from fourth in 2012.

“Our passenger figures reflect the growing demand for the long-haul destinations only a hub airport can support,” Heathrow Chief Executive Officer Colin Matthews said in the statement, while adding that the U.K. site will still lose its European lead without the addition of at least one new runway.

The number of flights to and from Heathrow fell 0.4 percent year-on-year to 469,552 in 2013. The average number of passengers per jet gained 3.7 percent to 154.8 as British Airways, the airport’s biggest user, introduced its first A380 services, adding to superjumbo operations by carriers including Dubai-based Emirates and Qantas Airways Ltd. of Australia.

Olympic Rebound

Traffic at Heathrow was aided by a rebound from a lull in 2012, when the Olympic Games put off some potential visitors and encouraged Britons to stay at home. Even without that effect the passenger total would have gained 2.3 percent.

Heathrow was shortlisted last month alongside single-runway London Gatwick as suitable for expansion in an interim report from the state-appointed Airports Commission on capacity in southeast England. The commission’s final recommendations are due after the 2015 general election.

Located to the southwest of London, Gatwick saw the total number of passengers rise by 4.8 percent to 35.4 million in 2013, while air traffic movements increased by 3,902 flights to 244,552 during the period. Emirates will fly the A380 to the world’s busiest single-runway airport starting in March.

Paris Charles de Gaulle and Germany’s Frankfurt airport, Europe’s second and third-largest hubs, will release full-year traffic statistics on Jan. 15.

Dubai is the busiest A380 hub, with Emirates far and away the biggest customer for the double-decker plane. Singapore -- where Singapore Airlines Ltd. is the no. 2 superjumbo carrier -- ranks second, with Heathrow having displaced Frankfurt to fourth spot, according to Airbus.