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London snowstorm pits British Airways against Heathrow airport

Jan 19, 2013 4:04 pm

Skift Take

If it wasn’t for the stranded passengers it would be fun to watch these two UK travel icons go at it over a matter that’s completely out of their control.

— Jason Clampet

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Luke MacGregor  / Reuters

Passengers wait with their luggage at Heathrow airport in London during a previous delay March 16, 2012. Luke MacGregor / Reuters


British Airways and Heathrow Airport have become locked in a blame game after tens of thousands of passengers’ journeys descended into chaos.

Thousands of people were left sleeping at the airport, many after spending up to six hours on aircraft waiting for clearance to take off, only to have their flights cancelled.

Many complained that they were given little or no information, left to find hotels for themselves, and not given back checked baggage.

On Friday, 440 flights were cancelled because of two inches of snow. In a normal day 1,300 flights leave the airport.

The chaos continued on Saturday, with 111 flights cancelled – 101 of them by British Airways – because of a knock on effect caused by planes being in the wrong place after the disruption on Friday.

Further delays will affect Heathrow on Sunday, with one in five flights cancelled because of expected snow.

The airport’s operator, BAA, said that the number could be higher if severe weather conditions at destinations across Europe forced airlines to cancel journeys, leaving thousands more people stranded.

The warning will add to concerns that the airport is not doing enough to keep flights moving in the snow.

BAA and British Airways, the biggest single airline at Heathrow, were locked in a blame game while passengers spoke of frustration at the lack of information.

Steve Greenwood, from Yorkshire, who was travelling to Seoul with his wife, said: “BA stands for bloody awful.”

Flights on Saturday were cancelled after up to two inches of snow was forecast for Heathrow.

Normand Boivin, the chief operating officer for Heathrow, said: “We apologise for the disruption caused to passengers by the expected snow and low visibility.

“Cancelling flights in advance of disruptive weather is a procedure used increasingly around the world, as it means the greatest number of passengers can fly with the minimum amount of disruption.”

The decision to reduce the flight schedule is made by the Heathrow Airport Demand and Capacity Balancing Group.

It is made up of representatives from all groups associated with scheduling flights in and out of the airport so that consensus can be reached over the revised schedule.

The worst disruption on Friday night and into Saturday was caused by problems, including air traffic control cutting the number of flights allowed in and out of the airport, and BA crews having to leave planes because they had exceeded their working hours, with no replacement staff to take over from them.

The snow was the first significant test for the airport since BAA invested £50 million in de-icing and snow removal equipment after being criticised two years ago for chaos caused by an inch of snow.

It claimed on Friday that its snow clearing had gone to plan and the two inches, which fell quickly on Friday morning, had taken an hour to remove. Each snow clearing shift had 510 extra workers, the airport said.

BAA and BA also blamed Nats, the air traffic control operator for the disruption. They said that it had dramatically reduced the permitted number of take-offs and landings from 88 per hour to 29.

BA said it was able to allow just six an hour during the worst of the disruption, which set in motion a series of delays.

BAA blamed the airline for further delays, which it said were caused by the time it took BA to de-ice its planes – allowing aircraft stands to become congested, leaving arriving passengers stuck on planes and stopping further flights taking off. British Airways denied that such operations had taken longer than they should have.

Part of the disruption to BA flights was caused when crews who had been on planes waiting to take off exceeded legal limits on the hours they can work. As a result, the flights had to be cancelled and passengers were sent back to the terminal.

BAA added that because Heathrow operates at 98.2 per cent capacity, it had less ability than other airports to recover from the disruption.

However, it was the experience of passengers in the airport that caused the most anger.

Thousands of passengers were stranded on aircraft, or in the airport, including many who were separated from their luggage because the cancellations were announced so late.

At least 3,000 BA passengers were put up in hotels around Heathrow, but thousands were left in the airport, which was likened to a “refugee camp” by some.

Others said they had been told to find their own hotel and there were complaints that directions to find offloaded luggage amounted to scrawled notes on pieces of paper.

Jerry Meng, from Los Angeles, spent Friday night at the airport after his flight to New York was cancelled. He said: “There are lots of bodies lying around in the airport. If feels like there’s been a natural disaster.”

David and Janet Brindle, from Cumbria, described BA’s customer service and treatment of passengers as appalling and said that “people were close to tears”.

The couple were stuck at Heathrow on Saturday after missing their flight to New Zealand, because their BA flight from Manchester to Heathrow was grounded.

Mrs Brindle said that they were given little information about what was going on, and were left without their bags when they wereng taken off the plane after six hours.

She said: “Nobody knew what they were doing. They couldn’t tell us anything.”

Aoife Bergin, 29, from Co Westmeath in Ireland, was queueing for two hours at Heathrow to try to establish whether her flight to Tokyo would go ahead.

She said that the airline had failed to keep passengers informed, adding: “They haven’t announced anything. There was nothing on the website this morning.

“The staff don’t know anything to tell you. There’s not enough staff here for the passengers.”

Ian Aitchison, who was due to fly to the US for a conference, said he felt “mildly hysterical” about being on a plane for more than six hours before the flight was cancelled.

Although there were some reports of jostling and arguments at the airport, Mr Aitchison said that most people were “confused and dazed rather than shouting and swearing”.

Andy Smallbone, who works in telecommunications, said he had just about given hope after four attempts to rebook his Friday flight to Prague, where he was due to attend a meeting.

Mr Smallbone, 46, of North West London, said: “It feels like chasing a rainbow, trying to rebook.

“It’s just farcical, just a bit of snow and it’s the same as a few years ago.”

Other airlines affected yesterday had far fewer cancellations but travellers at regional airports including Leeds Bradford, Humberside and Newcastle were also frustrated by delays.

Liverpool John Lennon and Manchester Airports were running normally but advised passengers to check with their airlines.

Train passengers did not fare much better, with reduced services across the country. Virgin Trains cancelled a number of services from the capital to Birmingham and Manchester and others were delayed.

The freezing temperatures also prompted road groups to issue warnings. Darron Burness, the head of special operations for AA, said: “With the snow compacting down and turning icy, we’re likely to see treacherous driving conditions throughout the weekend.

“Any fresh snow on top will just add to the problems.”

The RAC said that it had dealt with nearly 9,000 breakdowns – 10 per cent more than usual.

Simon Williams, a spokesman for the group, said: “Large numbers of people undoubtedly decided not to drive yesterday, which meant we coped very well, particularly as we had so many patrols on duty.

“We attended double the amount of accidents that we would do normally. The roads are still treacherous so anyone deciding to travel on them should do so with caution.”

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