Snow problems at Heathrow being used as opportunity to lobby for another runway

Around 2 inches of snow at Heathrow has caused many cancellations and delays to flights. Meanwhile, three inches of snow at Gatwick has not caused any significant disturbance. And Gatwick only has one runway. Heathrow claims that poor visibility conditions mean more separation distance has to be allowed for planes, and thus imply that they could do better with more runways. It seems the snow is being used as an opportunity to stress how difficult it is for the airport to operate at over 98% of capacity. However, much of the problem appears to be internal organisation within Heathrow, rather than any lack of runway space. Heathrow Airport has spent £36m on its Winter Resilience Programme since 2010 and now has 130 snow-clearing vehicles and equipment. But this does not appear to have been very effective. Gatwick spent £8 million  on “snow kit”, the airport’s snow-clearing capacity is now on a par with icy Oslo, and say its snow-clearing equipment now comprises 98 vehicles, up from the 47 it had in 2011. Gatwick said the 50 cancellations it had made were all due to disruption at other airports. So don’t be taken in by Heathrow using this as “proof” it needs to expand.

Some examples of articles in the Mail, implying that the snow means airport expansion is necessary.

Heathrow’s snow horror: blame flaky politicians

By PETER MCKAY (Daily Mail)

20 January 2013

Everyone in Britain talks constantly about the weather, observed an American visitor, who added: ‘But no one does anything about it.’ Good joke, but no one’s laughing.

How can a smattering of snow cause the cancellation of hundreds of  flights and the temporary homelessness of thousands when, in countries with winters more harsh than  our own, aviation continues without difficulty?

No one can explain it. Each year, we greet snow as if it was falling for the first time. Good lord, what is that cold, wet, slippery white stuff?

Ongoing delays: Heathrow claims poor visibility as well as snow-clearing on the two runways slows down arrivals and departures

Sometimes, we blame forecasters for not warning us. At other times, snow-clearance equipment is blamed. Mostly it’s just hopeless excuses. As a nation we mulishly refuse to take seriously inconveniences to the travelling public.

This year, Heathrow officials from the management company and the airlines have at least got their story straight, instead of falling out  among themselves as they’ve done in the past.

Their spiel goes like this: The airport is working at about 98 per cent of its capacity. Poor visibility as well as snow-clearing on the two runways slows down arrivals and departures. Safety is paramount. So some flights must be cancelled. We apologise to passengers for any inconvenience.

On Friday, 440 flights were cancelled. A further 111 were abandoned on Saturday.

How can a smattering of snow cause the cancellation of hundreds of flights and the temporary homelessness of thousands?

Perhaps I missed it, but I heard no explanation from them as to why it was necessary to hold some passengers for seven hours on a plane which didn’t take off — then return them to the terminal to sleep on the floor, or to organise hotels for themselves.

Personally, I felt lucky. The Virgin Atlantic 747 on which I was a passenger took only seven hours 20 minutes to fly 4,400 miles from Miami, averaging more than ten miles a minute. But we were held in a stack (flying in circles) over Heathrow because snow had begun to fall.

Although we didn’t catch sight of the ground until the runway hove into view through the snow flurries, our landing was smooth, the baggage came up quickly and we were clear of the airport in under an hour.

We were luckier than a passenger headed for Las Vegas, who told Radio 4 his flight was cancelled after waiting on the tarmac for six hours. Everyone on the plane was then taken off but the passengers were not able to reclaim their baggage.

Having spent Friday night in a nearby hotel, he returned to the airport on Saturday morning only to be told that he couldn’t have his bag until Sunday. Is this acceptable? Surely not.

Yesterday, flights were coming and going normally from Gatwick, but Heathrow cancelled 20 per cent of its traffic. Again it was stressed that the snow meant more time was needed between flights, which, because they were working at ‘near capacity’, meant cancellations.

No one is saying as much, but the message is clear enough — Heathrow needs another runway. Are aviation officials dragging their heels during this spell of bad weather in order to force the public to come to the same conclusion, pushing the Government to change its policy?

I doubt they are that cynical. But expanding Heathrow is a political question. The Labour government agreed to a third runway, but the Tory opposition — to please constituents in West London — came out against any more development of Heathrow. Now they’re stuck  with that decision, at least until the 2015 election.

Would a third runway solve the long-running public grievance that is Heathrow Airport? Maybe not. A third runway might also be working at near capacity before long. We need expansion of all London airports, but which politician in a position to move this subject on will risk his or her career saying so?

Those who travel regularly and have experienced the full horror of cancelled flights, imprisonment on stalled planes, irretrievable luggage and sleeping on terminal floors, can and do rage against the collective failure of aviation officialdom to do anything much more than wring  their hands.

Confusion: Critics said Heathrow bosses had failed to learn lessons from December 2010, when a snowstorm left the airport paralysed for days

But for every individual who rages, there might be ten or more who don’t care, who think too much fuss is made by those who fly regularly. Indeed, many are positively scornful of travellers’ trauma.

My old Scottish grannie was one  of them. She would say after  hearing of some calamity at sea, or in the air: ‘Aye, well they’d no business being there.’



Some comments from AirportWatch members:

“I suspect that they occasionally do a deliberately bad job so that they can create a semi-crisis and then use that as additional leverage to get another runway. As you say, showing they are incapable of organising a piss-up in a brewery should not allow them to extend the brewery so they can fail even bigger in future!”

“Passengers have complained to Sky News about how they have been left hanging about the airport all weekend without any information. Simon Calder also appeared on Sky blaming the airport’s problems on “congestion”. This prompted Eamon Holmes to ask him if Heathrow could operate better with three runways.No doubt we will be hearing this one again as we did in similar circumstances two you imply this basket doesn’t need more eggs!”

“It would be interesting to see members of the press investigate things like the progress of the Major Disruption Recovery Development Group which the CAA threw to AOA/BATA and might not have been picked up : ”

“My impression is that Heathrow did a reasonable job in getting the snow cleared – but BA did not have the people in place with sufficient grip of reality to prioritise crew rosters/ stands/ de-icing.  Accordingly the stands were clogged up, incoming flights couldn’t
discharge passengers or were turned back to their originating airports mid-flight (tweets from both Bradford and Lyon both had this last night) and planes waited three hours to be deiced and the flights were then cancelled. It certainly doesn’t look like a basket in which you would want to place even more eggs.”

“The Begg Report from the 2010 events could do to be dusted down : ”




Gatwick spent £8 million on snow preparedness in 2010



Gatwick Airport ready for snow, promises operations manager


IT MAY have been a wet Christmas rather than a white one but Gatwick Airport is ready for whatever weather might be thrown at us.

Gatwick chiefs say that, following an £8 million spending spree on “snow kit”, the airport’s snow-clearing capacity is now on a par with icy Oslo. The airport’s snow-clearing equipment now comprises 98 vehicles, up from the 47 it had two winters ago.

  1. Gatwick Airport ready for snow, promises operations manager

    Gatwick Airport ready for snow, promises operations manager

Andy Crabb, Gatwick’s airfield operations manager, explained that the airport is now prepared for the worst. He said: “We have snow ploughs, brushes, cutters, blowers and deicing vehicles, as well as tractors.

“We have 18 ‘sweeper blowers’ for the runway and taxiways, and six large runway anti-icing vehicles, and we can store up to 600,000 litres of anti-icing agent – twice as much as we had in 2010.”

He added: “All £8 million worth of kit has arrived, been tested and is ready for use.”

During bad weather a team of 66 work 12-hour shifts to provide 24-hour cover to keep the runway clear, with a further 120 staff available to be drafted in should the need arise.

It is no easy job clearing snow if it does fall as there is 1.8 million square feet of runway.

As well as machinery to clear the air strip, the airport has 4,000 blankets, 600 mattresses, 8,000 bottles of water, 600 folding beds, 20 snow shovels and 10 travel cots in case passengers become stranded by adverse weather.

Mr Crabb said: “From training extra staff volunteers to drive our snow fleet and help passengers in our terminals, to providing real-time updates during snow, we are as prepared as possible for the winter months.”






The chaos is set to continue: Heathrow to cancel 10% of flights today because of low visibility

  • Around 155 – one in ten – will be cancelled at the airport today
  • Stranded passengers have already been forced to sleep on terminal floors after severe weather saw hundreds of flights cancelled over the weekend
  • Travellers vented their frustration about the cancellations


21 January 2013

Travel chaos will continue at Heathrow today after the airport announced plans to cancel ten per cent of flights – around 155

The airport, which typically handles 1,300 flights a day, said it was planning the cancellations because of low visibility, which means more space has to be left between aircraft.

It comes after thousands of air passengers faced misery yesterday after around 260 flights were cancelled at the airport, even though the snow was just 2cm thick.

British Airways, Air France, Aer Lingus, Lufthansa and TAP Portugal flights have been affected.

A statement from the airport said: ‘Following a joint decision by Heathrow, airlines and air traffic control, the flight schedule at Heathrow today will be reduced in order to minimise the expected disruption caused by low visibility.

‘Latest forecasts show a high probability of low visibility conditions. This will reduce the capacity of the airport and without action would cause significant disruption to passengers and flights.

The flight schedule for 21st January will be reduced by 10 per cent and details of which flights will be cancelled will be announced by airlines when they have finalised their schedules.’

It added that it is possible that weather conditions at other European airports will increase the number of cancellations, and urged passengers due to travel tomorrow to check the status of their flight with their airline before travelling to the airport.’

The Heathrow Connect and Heathrow Express train services were also hit by major delays to and from the airport.

BA has already apologised to customers and said it was doing ‘everything it could’ to help those whose flights have been disrupted by the weather.

It has also been claimed airport hotels hiked up their prices to take advantage of those stuck because of the bad weather.

Passengers said some hotel rooms were being offered for £600.

The Sofitel at Terminal 5 was offering rooms at £288, even for those who just wanted somewhere to rest for a couple of hours. Hotel workers said room rates had been put up by about £50 because of the weather.

Angry travellers took to Twitter to vent their frustration with the situation.

Paul Romanuk said: ‘Still massive delays and cancellations due to snow. It hasn’t snowed for two days. Who runs Heathrow, the FA?’

‘The Scandinavians r much more prepared. When do we Brits ever get anything right?’, said Twitter user Jey L, while Kalyan Das said: ‘Bizarre situation, only 4cm snow closes the 2nd busiest airport in northern hemisphere, despite of forecast, rubbish!’

Ben Jones was also unimpressed, tweeting: ‘Heathrow spent £37 million on being better prepared for the snow. Today 1 in 5 flights cancelled. Money well spent then!!’

More than 100 Heathrow flights – 67 of them departures – were grounded yesterday after 440 were cancelled on Friday because of the weather.

Stranded passengers expressed fury after having to sleep on terminal floors.

Some frustrated passengers said they had been held on a plane for six hours waiting to take off, before being told their flight had been cancelled and that they had to disembark.

They then had to endure long queues for free hotel vouchers, find their own accommodation or face a night on the floor.

But rival Gatwick, just 24 miles away, kept its runway open and said the 50 cancellations it had made were all due to disruption at other airports.

It said it had boosted its snow-clearing capabilities by studying methods used at Scandinavian airports such as Oslo.

The Met Office said Gatwick had faced about three inches of snow on Friday afternoon, compared with two at Heathrow.

Heathrow is owned by LHR Airports Ltd, known as BAA until October last year. Gatwick is owned and managed by Global Infrastructure Partners.

Critics said Heathrow’s bosses had failed to learn lessons from a period of severe disruption in December 2010, when the airport was paralysed for days by a snowstorm.