At Christmas, Britain’s airports operate at full stretch as millions of travellers depart for midwinter trips or return to their families for the festive season.

When 25 December falls midweek, the main strain at airports happens over the weekend immediately preceding Christmas Day – this year, Friday 20 to Sunday 22 December.

There will also be a peak over the weekend between Christmas and New Year, especially on Saturday 28 and Sunday 29 – the main ski changeover days.

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In the New Year, the peak inbound days will be spread from Thursday 2 to Sunday 5 January.

Britain’s two biggest airports, Heathrow and Gatwick, have this year declined to provide The Independent with their forecasts for the busiest winter days.

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But using historical data it is possible to deduce when airline passengers should expect “peak squeeze”.

At Heathrow airport, Friday 20 December is likely to see the highest number of travellers during the entire winter.

With business travellers completing trips, and many families setting off on Christmas holidays, around 225,000 passengers are expected to fly in and out of Europe’s busiest airport on the final Friday, an average of 200 per minute during Heathrow’s usual flying hours.

New York and Dubai are the leading destinations, with Amsterdam, Hong Kong and Dublin completing the top five. 

In the New Year, Friday 3 and Monday 6 January are likely to be the peak dates at Heathrow.

Travellers from the capital to the airport will face problems because of the closure of the Heathrow Express and Transport for London rail links from Paddington from 24 to 27 December, and reduced services for most of the remainder of the month.

At Gatwick, the squeeze will be most intense on the next three Sundays. For outbound travellers, Sunday 22 December will be busiest at the Sussex airport. The top five destinations are Barcelona, Dublin, Geneva, Dubai and Amsterdam.

Sunday 29 December will be the peak date overall, with more than 125,000 passengers will pass through the world’s busiest single-runway airport. Roughly half of them will be winter-sports and winter-sun holidaymakers returning home; the other half setting out on New Year journeys

The first Sunday of the New Year, 5 January, is expected to be busiest for inbound travellers.

The third London airport, Stansted, is expecting peak departures to take place on Friday 20 December, with 45,000 travellers.

In terms of arriving and departing passengers, Sunday 29 December is set to be the busiest day of the festive season at the Essex airport, with 88,000 passengers set to travel through the terminal.

Malaga, Alicante and the Canary Islands are the most popular destinations.

Luton will see its busiest day for outbound departures on Sunday 22 December, with 29,200 travellers leaving. The busiest day overall will be the following Sunday, when the Bedfordshire airport is expected to handle 56,300 passengers.

In total, London’s airports will handle many more passengers than any other city in the world – in distant second place is New York.

Manchester, the third-busiest airport in Britain, is expecting to break records this Christmas – despite the collapse of Thomas Cook, which until 23 September had its headquarters there.

The biggest crowds are expected on Friday 20 December. As with Heathrow and Gatwick, three of the top five destinations are Amsterdam, Dubai and Dublin; the other two are Tenerife and Paris.

The peak pattern is different in Scotland, where Edinburgh expects to be busiest on 27 December, with 46,015 travellers, and high numbers also on 20, 29 and 30 December. In the New Year, 3 January is set to be busiest.

Glasgow airport expects its biggest crowds to be on Boxing Day, with over 22,000 passengers, followed by Friday 27 December.

Passenger records are predicted to be broken at the UK’s busiest airports – assuming there are no widespread cancellations.

So far this month striking French air-traffic controllers have grounded hundreds of flights.

Last December, unauthorised drone activity grounded flights at Gatwick for 33 hours causing the cancellation of 1,000 flights. No perpetrator has yet been identified.


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