Heathrow snowed under: What lesson learnt?

BLAME it on the vagary of the weather which, airlines and airport operators will remind their customers, is beyond their control. Yet this was not the first time that London Heathrow Airport suffered the wrath of snow storms that led to its closure and the pre-Christmas chaos created by thousands of stranded passengers.

Someone has to decide when a “freak” occurrence will become an “expected” visitation. That probably explains how Moscow and Helsinki which suffer longer and more severe wintry spells than London are better able to keep their airports running.

Heathrow sympathisers will recognize that Heathrow – the world’s busiest airport – handles far more flights than those other airports, and the volume can only exacerbate the problem. Yet, Heathrow has only a snow fleet of 69 vehicles compared to its smaller compatriot Gatwick’s 150. The question is one of preparedness. In the opinion of former Labour Transport secretary Lord Adonis, operator British Airport Authority (BAA) appeared to have made “totally inadequate preparations.”

Weather disruption is understandable. British Prime Minister David Cameron confessed he was “frustrated” at how long BAA took to improve the situation.

Whether it was a convenient lack of foresight or an unfortunate oversight is not as germane as the criticism of BAA’s inadequate investment in systems, processes and other resources to handle an impending disruption such as this before the Christmas holiday, and its slow response to the crisis. Its operations were crippled by not only insufficient equipment but also a shortage of workers. Misguided optimism led it to also reject help of the military to clear the snow and ice.

It is time that the industry – in the words of the European Union Transport Commissioner Siim Kallas – “get serious” about better planning for bad weather. He warned that laws would be introduced to mandate “minimum service requirements” at airports. That includes passenger facilities for stranded passengers.

The British government may now fine an airport for disrupting the travel plans of passengers when, as stated by Aviation minister Theresa Villiers, it “does let passengers down and doesn’t prepare properly for severe weather.” She reiterated: “We want to make sure that airports are doing their very best to prepare for severe weather conditions.”

After the storm, those are reassuring words. However, penalties are difficult to administer and such measures being post-event are often too little, too late. Operators may even be prepared to take a gamble on their being spared, in favour of not reducing the bottom-line to cater for contingencies. After all, we’re talking about the weather.

Airlines are not off the hook. In such an event, passengers are apt to turn to the airlines on which they are booked for assistance. Stories abound about the absence of ground staff, the lack of information and advice (most airlines just issue an information slip containing a certain number to call), the difficulty of getting through to the customer help line, and a total lack of concern for the welfare of stranded passengers.

Although legally obliged to provide minimum care, most airlines choose not to know. Many passengers hopeful of compensation in past crises such as the disruption caused by the Icelandic volcano eruption in April are still waiting for their dues.

BAA and airlines may bemoan the loss of business from the massive cancellation of flights, but it is the vulnerable passenger that is at the receiving end of the stick. It is a risk he takes, but hard-nosed businesses cannot ignore the moral obligation of a fair deal. It is unfortunate that this can only be achieved through what British Transport Secretary Philip Hammond referred to as an “economic penalty for service failure”.

Mr Hammond told the Sunday Times: “Greater weight needs to be given to performance and passenger satisfaction.” He added: “The government is committed to reforming the way airports are regulated, putting passengers at the very heart of how they are run.”

If it is a lesson learnt, it is not new. Yet it is a worthy reminder. Time will tell if passengers that continue to travel through Heathrow will benefit from the commitment. Hopefully, even before the next snow storm.

This article also appeared at http://www.aspireaviation.com.

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About David Leo
David Leo has more than 30 years of aviation experience, having served in senior management in one of the world's best airlines and airports. He continues to maintain a keen interest in the business, writes freelance and provides consultancy services in the field.

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