Airport Delays at Heathrow – Who is to Blame?

Lhrsnowb To date, most people – and most legislators – tend to focus on the airlines when delays occur, and for sure, airlines vary in their degree of adequate response to disruptions to their service.  For their part, the airlines have been quick to blame external things when things go wrong – weather, air traffic control, whatever.

Strangely one part of the aviation puzzle has generally been given a free ride and exempted from obligations and blame – the airports.  But is this correct?  What part of the blame must airports accept when, as is the case presently in Europe, bad weather forces the airport to close itself down and cancel all flights in and out?  Let’s have a look.

As you probably know, bad weather all across Europe has disrupted airport operations, also all across Europe.  This has been occurring pretty much for all of December to a varying degree, and to a massive extent over the last week and weekend.

All of this is regrettable, but particular focus needs to be given to the appalling problems at Heathrow; not only because it seems to be suffering the most but also due to its unique position as such a vital link in the global aviation network.

The usual rules about free market competition seldom apply to airports, and completely do not apply to airports in Britain.  The UK government has essentially declared a moratorium not just on developing new airports but also on expanding current airports.  Free market forces can’t create new airports to compete with Heathrow, and neither can airlines or passengers conveniently choose alternate airports if they wish to avoid Heathrow.  We all – airlines and passengers alike – are locked into a love/hate relationship with Heathrow accordingly.

When any type of product or service or utility is restricted and exempted from fair market competition, it becomes sadly necessary to consider the need for government regulation to compensate for the lack of market forces, and this is definitely the case with London’s airports, and most of all, Heathrow.

For various reasons, mainly historical, Heathrow has assumed a dominant role as London’s (and England’s, and indeed, for the UK as a whole) prime airport gateway to the world.  It has an equally important role as a connecting hub for people traveling from one country, going through Heathrow and then connecting on to another flight, somewhere else.

Heathrow claims to be the busiest airport in the world in terms of international passengers.  In terms of domestic and international passenger numbers, it is the world’s third or fourth largest airport (Atlanta is first, Beijing is second, and Heathrow may have recently lost out to Chicago/O’Hare for third position, falling now to fourth).

Whatever its rank, and by whatever measure, it is fair to say both that Britain and much of the world relies on Heathrow.

The owners/operators of Heathrow are in a special position, where they must be relied upon not to abuse their position of trust, and the position of marketplace privilege they enjoy.  They must either be relied upon – or externally regulated – not only in terms of things like not charging ridiculously unfair fees to airlines and passengers (and airport concession operators, etc etc) but also in terms of providing a quality and standard of service that their customers/clients should reasonably expect and rely upon.

Heathrow is owned by BAA (no relation to BA – BAA a company formerly known as British Airports Authority) which in turn is controlled and largely owned by a Spanish company, Ferrovial.

Let’s first look at whether Heathrow is proving to be profitable or not for BAA/Ferrovial.  If Heathrow is losing money terribly, we arguably might accept weaker expectations for the standard of service provided at Heathrow than if it is profitable.

On 16 December, BAA expressed confidence about exceeding its 2010 target earnings, with an expectation that it will exceed its earlier projected £972 million dollar profit (and don’t forget this has been a bad year, with depressed aviation, a bad global economy, the mess of the Icelandic volcano disruptions, and BA strikes, earlier in the year).

For next year, BAA is projecting revenue to rise 10.7% to £2.3 billion, and profit to increase by 15.2% (on an EBITDA basis – before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization) of £1.12 billion.  BAA projects a record number of passengers going through Heathrow next year – 70.4 million, up 6.2% from what it expects this year to close off at (by comparison, its other London airport, Stansted, is projecting a 5.1% drop in passenger numbers down to 17.6 million, due to Ryanair shifting flights away from there).

So, let’s understand this.  Heathrow is wildly profitable for its owners (although it is highly leveraged and the owners have substantial borrowings and interest costs associated with it).  They can pretty much afford any type of snow removal/weather control equipment they choose to own.

Now let’s understand the weather problems at Heathrow.  It was cold, and moderately snowy and icy.  But no snow has fallen at Heathrow since a 4” fall that ended on Saturday morning.  However, the airport has been essentially completely closed for Saturday, Sunday, and yes – Monday too (reports suggest between 16 – 22 flights departed on Monday, compared to 650 originally scheduled).  On Tuesday – with no snow predicted – they are forecasting no more than one third of scheduled flights will depart (and of course the actual number may end up less than this).

The appalling performance at Heathrow was contrasted with the situation at Gatwick, which only closed for less than five hours on Saturday, and where 300+ flights departed on both Sunday and Monday.

It is estimated that more than half a million people have had their travel plans disrupted – so far.  All going well, it will take about five days for people to be rescheduled onto alternate flights; and with more snow predicted for Wednesday/Thursday, it is hard to confidently expect that all will indeed go well.

It is easy to read this number – half a million – and then keep reading.  But think about that, and think about the other millions of people affected by the non-arrival of these half million.  People don’t just travel for Christmas – some travel for other occasions such as weddings, funerals, birthdays, etc.  Business people travel for other reasons, and must now be counting the cost of deals not closed, and of wasted days spent unproductively in the wrong part of the world.

Think about the utter complete and total misery and frustration of people, marooned at an airport, sleeping on the floor (have you ever tried that, by the way?), unable to phone through to their airline, and not having any idea at all when and how they will be able to travel to their destination.

Let’s think about another measure – say half a million people each wait an average of two days to get an alternate flight (this is probably understanding the total time lost/wasted enormously).  That represents 2740 man-years of time wasted.  With an average lifespan of say 70 years, this could be interpreted as 40 people have been ‘killed’ by these delays.

So how can a moderate snow fall, ending on Saturday morning, cause Heathrow to close for 72+ hours?  We’re not talking about some country airstrip in the middle of nowhere.  We’re talking about the self-styled ‘busiest airport in the world’.

This problem was nothing to do with flying conditions.  Planes could take off and land with no problems whatsoever, other than those caused by the icy and snowy runways and taxiways.  The problem is primarily to do with clearing the runways and taxiways.

The question is actually easily answered.  Self-evidently, there were too few snow plows, too few blowers, too few tankers spraying anti-icing compound on the ground, and too few staff.

Look at the picture taken at Heathrow at the top of this article.  Two men with shovels (and only one shoveling, the other one watching, doing nothing) while the snow is falling heavily all around them.  Is that the best BAA could manage?

(Partial answer – of course there were more than two people deployed, but the picture does tell a compelling story, doesn’t it!  Where are the snow plows?  What is the point of that narrow pathway these two men are shoveling?)

How is it that with whatever resource the airport does have, they still couldn’t even average one departing flight per hour on Monday, two days after the snow stopped falling?  They should be able to send planes out once every minute or two, but they couldn’t even do it once an hour.

Another part of the question is – if they could manage to dispatch one plane every hour or so, why only one?  What was the restriction that allowed one plane to go, but not ten or twenty or thirty more?

Think about it.  We all know that it can take 10 – 15 minutes of taxiing to get to the take-off point at Heathrow, so even if only one plane was allowed to be moving, anywhere, on the ground at a time (an unthinkable restriction) surely they could have sent four planes off an hour?

There is no way to explain and no way to justify this appalling outcome.  Its cost in human life and suffering, in lost business, in every possible dimension, is huge beyond measure.

One has to assume that BAA made a cold but incorrectly calculated decision at some earlier point to economize on its snow handling capabilities.  That decision needs to now have consequences – if it does not, then BAA will be free to continue to provide an appallingly poor service at a critical part of Britain and the world’s aviation infrastructure.

Imagine if a fire department made a similar decision – instead of having more fire trucks and fire fighters than they reasonably expect to ever need, with more on call from neighboring jurisdictions, imagine if they said ‘most of the time, we only ever need one fire truck, and even then it is probably a false alarm, so we’re selling off the rest of our equipment’.  Imagine if the police staffed for average rather than peak levels.  Or the paramedics.  Imagine if the power company was unable to handle occasional demand peaks, and responded by cutting off all power to half a million people for up to a week.

These situations are all unthinkable and unacceptable.  So too is the loss of Britain’s prime airport due to inadequately providing for snow removal capabilities.  What is BAA doing with its almost 50% gross profit, its £1 billion plus of EBITDA profit?

BAA should be made personally liable for every lost penny by every person and company inconvenienced by their disgraceful mismanagement of a simple situation, and should further be required to pay massive compensation for the lost time and inconvenience suffered both by passengers unable to fly out, and also by passengers all around the world unable to fly in.

BAA needs to reimburse and compensate everyone harmed by their mismanagement.  This extends beyond the people unable to fly, and goes also to the airlines unable to fly their passengers, to airport concessions losing money due to an interruption in the normal flow of passengers and related business opportunities, to freight carriers, and to the companies not receiving the freight they had ordered in time for Christmas sales.

If this bankrupts BAA, so much the better.  BAA was trusted with the management of a vital strategic resource.  All of us who schedule our travel (or our freight) to or through Heathrow are relying on BAA to keep the airport open and running smoothly.  BAA have clearly shown themselves unable to honorably meet this obligation.

BAA’s chief executive has said he is ‘really disappointed to have disrupted to many thousands of people’s Christmas plans’.  He added ‘I couldn’t be more sorry, that’s the case’.  But he is as wrong about this as he was about the snow management plans he was ultimately responsible for.

He would be much more sorry if he found himself out on the street, unemployed.  He would be much more sorry if his company found itself with half a billion pounds or more in compensation payments.  He would be much more sorry if his company was forced to give up (not sell, give up) Heathrow entirely.

If Britain is happy with a third world service approach to its ‘flagship’ airport, then by all means, let this disgrace fade away and be diluted down by various official investigations and inquiries and reports.  But if Britain wishes to reaffirm Heathrow’s primacy as a world class leading airport, it needs to do something aggressive to ensure this never happens again.  Because if Britain doesn’t fix its Heathrow problem, we as travelers will vote with our feet, and we’ll travel to Europe through other connecting airports, and we’ll do all we can to avoid travel to Heathrow.

I’ve never understood why people so massively prefer flying to Heathrow rather than Gatwick anyway!  Try Gatwick for your next journey to Britain – you’ll find it almost as quick and easy to get from the plane to central London through Gatwick as it is through Heathrow, and your chances of being able to travel in the snow are massively improved.

Don’t forget London’s other three airports, too.  See my complete review and description of all five London airports for more details about Heathrow, Gatwick, Stansted, Luton and London City.

15 thoughts on “Airport Delays at Heathrow – Who is to Blame?”

  1. Bravo. Well said. I would say though that under-investment against bad-case situations is noticeable across the UK, not just at Heathrow. With the national rail system partially paralysed and Eurostar on restricted service, after what any other part of the world would regard as a trivial snowfall, Brits need to take a critical look at what successive governments have done — or permitted to be done — to their transport infrastructure.

  2. I was due to fly LHR-IAD (and then DEN-XNA) tomorrow, but UA canceled the flight YESTERDAY! It makes no sense because as you said, there hasn’t been any snow for TWO DAYS. How buried can an airport be and why can’t they clear it in this much time?
    The soonest UA could get me out is Friday morning, on BA to AMS and then back on UA through ORD and on to XNA. I know it’s not UA’s fault and until I read your article, I was okay with blaming the weather. But now I am ticked because it’s the airport’s fault. Argh!
    LHR is way more convenient for me. Better CO/UA flights (I am Silver Elite with CO) than LGW and it is easier based on where I live – Reading is a half hour west and there is a very inexpensive shuttle bus (insert shameless plug for here) compared to an hour plus for a more expensive slow train to Gatwick.
    So now I’m hoping just to get home for Christmas, presents in hand. With more weather coming, I’m doubtful.

  3. Update on Tuesday : Heathrow cancelled two thirds of the flights scheduled for Tuesday; but Gatwick operated extra flights at 115% of its usual capacity in an effort to help compensate for Heathrow’s inadequacy.
    The stark difference in effectiveness of Heathrow and Gatwick becomes even more impossible to ignore.

  4. Skipping over all the snow talk, I agree with you about Gatwick. Just as convenient, much less crowded. Cheap train ticket from London Bridge and other London stations (when they reopen after construction). (Actually, for any tourists coming into or out of Gatwick, don’t be mislead thinking Gatwick Express is the best or only option to get into London. The trains to London Bridge connect to the Jubilee Line on the Tube which will take you anywhere from Canary Wharf to the West End.)
    Ok, I realise I’m hijacking the snow article to praise Gatwick. And, like above, I’m a UA fiend, so I use Heathrow. I only wish I COULD use Gatwick more often.

  5. I flew to Heathrow four years ago on business and vowed never to use it again. Now I feel it was a good decision. To the point of the article, yes, BAA has to be accountable for this mess. The Bristish Government should step in and make the accountable. The public has to make them accountable. This must not go away as a fairy tale, something that “just happened”

  6. Today’s update is that the chief of BAA has forsworn his bonus (no idea how much this is in actual money) and is promising £10 million (about $16 million) in snow removal equipment. £10 million is a PITTANCE compared to what David says were their profits for the year. The guy shouldn’t lose just his bonus, he should lose his paycheck! Grrrr!
    Quoting from the above article:
    New equipment is expected to arrive as soon as tomorrow. BAA declined to comment. The £10m investment represents a twenty-fold increase on last year’s £500,000 expenditure on snow vehicles – a sum that could expose BAA to accusations of sustained under-investment in its winter preparations.

  7. A clarification on the bonus surrender by BAA’s CEO.
    In actual fact, this lucky man was due to get two bonuses. He is giving up one of them, but keeping the other, which is believed to be some hundreds of thousands of pounds and, I think, the larger of the two bonuses he was to receive.
    Some other interesting information has come to light.
    First, BAA refused to allow the airlines to remove snow around their gates and stands, saying that only their own staff were qualified to do this. Unfortunately, BAA didn’t have enough staff or equipment.
    Second, it seems BAA lied about how many snow plows it had. On Tuesday, a spokesman said they had 28. But according to their public ‘snow plan’ they have only 10. In contrast, Gatwick (half the size) has 14 (and more ordered).
    Third, it also seems that BAA refused to accept help from the Army or other external sources. Why not?
    Details here :

  8. I really enjoyed reading your article on BAA (Buggered Again & Again).
    My nightmare at Heathrow (everyone has at least one) was transferring through there coming back from Norway. I had 4 hours to transfer, and spent 4.5 hours (!!!) standing in a line to be re screened for security. They had just 2 x-ray machines operating for all transfer passengers and the queue snaked throughout the terminal.
    Put more staff on?? Are you kidding??.
    I missed my flight of course, and apologies? …only smarm and condescension. Last time through Heathrow for me.

  9. For some destinations the only alternative is Heathrow. Stansted and Luton are both nearer to me and always get first choice. Gatwick is takes too long to get to from North London. BAA have a lot to answer for and I will be seeking compensation. I am also writing to my political representatives (some of them I’ve spoken to already, as they are friends). Your piece makes all the points I wish to make. Colin Matthews should not only forego his bonus he should resign. The leadership and management in a crisis was shambolic.
    My story:

  10. As I await the imminent departure, at last, of some New Zealand friends from Heathrow to Canada, I couldn’t agree more with your sentiments about airport liability. After a six-hour wait on the tarmac last Saturday, they spent the rest of the night on the floor of Terminal 1. Since then, until finally blagging seats on an out-bound flight today, they’ve been holed up in an airport hotel.
    They will undoubtedly go after compensation from the airline involved. But they know very well whom to blame. A final text from them just now prior to takeoff, following an exchange of holiday wishes: “Think we’ll fly through Moscow next time!”

  11. Dear David,
    Do you think the people who run Heathrow Airport should take a quick trip to Syracuse to see how to deal with snow at airports? It sounds as though they know how to handle a few snowflakes up there.
    See this article :
    Key facts : There have been 71.9″ of snow in Syracuse in the first three weeks of December. In a single four day period, 43.2 inches of snow fell.
    Total time the airport has been closed? 15 minutes.
    Anyway, Merry Christmas and a very happy New Year to you, and thanks for all the invaluable information (not to mention the entertainment ;-)) you provide all year.
    E L

  12. It is certainly true that Gatwick survived the last snow much better than Heathrow but 3 weeks earlier Gatwick closed for 48 hours with no flights in or out so it’s not quite as good as it seems. Gatwick has a micro climate and actually has worse weather than Heathrow, it is particularly susceptable to fog and is often 5-10 degrees colder than surrounding towns.
    Heathrow’s mistake before Christmas, and I was due to fly out on the 21st, was deciding to only attempt to clear one runway. When they realised their mistake, the other runway and the planes parked at the gate areas had frozen with solid ice and it was this that caused the problems. I live 12 miles from the airport and the snowfall on the 18th was the heaviest and fastest falling snow I can ever recall in London in 22 years, so whilst not looking for excuses, this was much worse than expected. The only good news was that my airline contacted me in advance to cancel the flight and althouhjt they offered to rebook, they refunded my fare without asking within 48 hours. If only the airline (BMI) went to more places I wanted to fly to.

  13. Alan – You’re right. I live about 12 miles away from Heathrow too. For London it was serious snow.
    One month earlier, BAA were happily boasting about their preparedness for winter:
    Amusing to read now of course. But it also throws some light on how out of the ordinary the weather on the 18th really was. Some say this is a reflection of climate change. If so, we’ve just had a hint about the future costs.

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