Heathrow to 'learn' from snow chaos

2010-12-23 16:01
London - When the snow has melted and tempers have calmed, serious questions will have to be asked about why London's Heathrow Airport once again made negative headlines as it tried to cope with wintry weather.

In the run-up to Christmas, thousands of passengers were forced to sleep on terminal floors or pass the hours in cold tents outside, as the Salvation Army dispensed hot drinks and its band performed Christmas carols to help keep spirits up.

"When we've got every passenger where he wants to be and she wants to be, then we will crawl over every aspect of these last few days," said Colin Matthews, the chief executive of airport operator BAA, who has been at the centre of criticism over the travel chaos.

In response to the attacks, a contrite Matthews, who is reported to earn £1m a year, has announced that he will forego his annual bonus this year.

BAA has faced criticism ranging from being too slow to get Heathrow back up and running - its second runway reopened four days after Saturday's heavy snowfalls - to failing to provide adequate information to customers to insufficiently investing in materials to combat snow and ice.

BAA, owned by Spanish company Ferrovial, was broken up earlier this year over competition concerns with regard to its market dominance.


While Heathrow, the world's busiest airport, remained in the hands of BAA, London's second-biggest airport, Gatwick, was sold off to US- based investment fund Global Infrastructure Partners (GIP) for £1.5bn.

BAA, privatised from state control in the 1980s, has seen an improvement in its finances this year - but it is still a loss-maker, figures show. In its latest financial results, it reported a loss of £196.2m in the nine months to September.

Earlier this year, BAA made public plans for an investment programme of £5.1bn for Heathrow over five years, of which £500 000 were targeted at snow and ice-fighting technology this year. A further £3m are planned for the next four years.

By comparison, reports suggest that Gatwick Airport, which is half the size of Heathrow, spent £1m on snow and ice this year and plans to spend another £7m next year.

Heathrow's "snow fleet" is made up of 69 vehicles, while Gatwick has 150 such vehicles, according to experts.

But David Learmount, operations and safety editor for industry magazine Flight Global, says that calls for further investment need to be put into context.

Unfair criticism

Other countries that invested more, like those in Scandinavia, have to deal with six-month winters, whereas Britain generally does not, he says.

"Even if we did throw dollars at it, our weather is different to the weather that the Scandinavians get. The equipment that they use would not win against the kind of weather that we had," he said.

Some commentators believe that Heathrow has received an unfair amount of criticism.

"We're seeing other airports around the world having problems," says John Strickland, director of airline consultancy JLS Consulting.

It should be remembered that Heathrow was much bigger than many of its rivals, so that any disruption there would immediately escalate.

"The biggest problem facing Heathrow is the fact that it runs at 99% capacity, which will not go away even if it improves facilities at its terminals," Strickland told the BBC.

But despite Heathrow's importance as a global hub, there was no room for complacency, warned Strickland.

"There are other airports that may be smaller but have more available capacity or are adding to their capacity, like Frankfurt, Paris, and Amsterdam," he said.

"People will go to Heathrow because they have to, rather than they choose to," he said.

Read more on:    uk  |  weather  |  air travel

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