13 FEBRUARY 2012


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Article from BTNews 13 FEBRUARY 2012

COMMENT: Snow and more snow

It looks like, as we go to press, that the UK has survived another weekend under a snowy blanket without any serious air transport disruptions.

Just a week back your Editor was asked by one of TV’s most important business programmes to comment on BAA’s snow performance.  Sadly the piece was pulled (TV, rather like airports, has slots, and they are precious) but the research had been done. 

Very apparent, once again, was the British media jumping on the airport operator, and not apportioning blame.

Just a week earlier Amsterdam, by all accounts, had performed worse.  Regular travellers to North America will tell you that this time of the year flying is always a bit of a lottery.  Two years ago your Editor was on the first and last flight out of Chicago for the day!

As the world’s busiest long haul airport Heathrow’s problems are compounded (and exaggerated).  The weather can change during a 12-hour flight.  That does not help passengers stranded in Barcelona and Prestwick.

Bearing in mind the trouble occurred on the first Sunday of February, a notoriously quiet period, some airlines with heavy frequencies to distant destinations were more than happy to have an excuse to cancel flights.

The general opinion now is that BAA performed far better than 12 months ago, does need some improvement, and BA, media-wise, got off lightly in terms of its performance!  Airport and airline apron handling seems to have been out of sequence.

BAA appears to have been too pessimistic in its planning and not flexible in the arrangements as the day progressed. 

The argument goes that the cut-back should have been gradually reduced, BAA through its joint snow committee asking for up to one-third of flights to be cancelled.  BA it seems added to what was required, hence the 40% generally quoted.  Once flights are cancelled there is a knock-on effect with aircraft and crew out of position.

Heathrow's basic constraint on handling full runway schedules is lack of acreage (JFK is twice the size, de Gaulle and Frankfurt around three times) and total stand numbers have always been a problem.  This is compounded by works areas for the new T2.

The real problem, as per the previous year, was making aircraft stands available.  With taxiways being cleared and snow moving to dumping areas around the airfield it would not be safe or feasible to handle a full flight schedule.  The 40% cutback was probably driven by an assessment of the reduction in flights that would be necessary to give teams unimpeded access to sufficient stands to clear all the aircraft parking areas that day.  Did the liaison between BAA and BA work properly?  Here there is a question mark.

It would be extremely surprising if BAA's emergency plan went as anticipated.  With all that new equipment and staff there would bound to be a learning process  – it is impossible to simulate snow clearing other than by practicing formations and operating the controls!

It is easy in retrospect to criticise but the message is “could do better”.  As for the media it is a question of putting up the right spokesman able to get the message over and keeping the press informed.  Off the record briefings can work very well.  The public seems to be getting the message.  Look on your airline website. 

Malcolm Ginsberg
Editor in Chief


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