Last updated: January 21, 2013 10:09 pm

Heathrow and BA did not act on snow alert

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Flight disruption: an aircraft lands at Heathrow after further flight cancellations due to adverse weather©AFP

Flight disruption: an aircraft lands at Heathrow after further cancellations due to adverse weather

The operator of Heathrow and airlines led by British Airways decided against taking pre-emptive measures to deal with snow that could have prevented the airport’s descent into chaos on Friday, the Financial Times has learnt.

A committee involving airline representatives and Heathrow Airport Holdings, the operator, agreed last Thursday that the number of flights in and out of the airport should not be cut even though they knew snow was forecast for Friday.

Analysts said the committee should have agreed flight reductions in advance of the snow because it would have prevented the widespread disruption that unfolded at Heathrow.

BA and Heathrow Airport Holdings on Monday repeated their apologies to tens of thousands of airline passengers who suffered problems – and in some cases misery – because of the snow-induced disruption over the past four days.

Heathrow has so far performed somewhat better this time around compared with the snow chaos of 2010, when one of the airport’s two runways was blocked for more than three days.

But politicians said BA and the airport operator still had questions to answer about their poor customer service.

Jim Fitzpatrick, Labour’s aviation spokesman, said: “I think BA needs to offer their passengers an explanation . . . and, where appropriate, apologies and the offer of compensation,” he said. “People will also expect Heathrow to explain why there were unacceptable delays.”

Heathrow’s difficulties in coping with snow are rooted in how Europe’s busiest airport is running at near full capacity. If one runway has to close temporarily for snow clearance, affected flights cannot be moved to later in the day because there are no gaps in the airport’s schedule.

The same applies if air traffic controllers insist on a reduced number of landings at the airport because of poor visibility.

Both things – a runway closure and reduced landings – happened on Friday as the snow came down, and 37 per cent of flights had to be cancelled.

BA’s operations fared particularly badly – and eventually became gridlocked – as it struggled to remove ice from its aircraft.

Some passengers sat on departing aircraft for up to eight hours, only to have their flights eventually cancelled.

Hundreds of passengers then spent the night sleeping on the floor in Terminal 5, BA’s main home at Heathrow, and one commentator compared the airport to a “refugee camp”.

It was only on Saturday that the committee involving Heathrow Airport Holdings, BA and other airlines decided to cut the number of flights on Sunday – because more snow was forecast – by 20 per cent.

This measure meant that most of the remaining flights operated because some slack was put into the system to cope with poor visibility. The committee agreed similar arrangements on Sunday for Monday’s schedule.

Heathrow Airport Holdings said the committee reached a consensus on Thursday that there was no case for cutting the airport’s schedule on Friday after learning a limited number of flights would be cancelled because of disruption at other airports.

John Strickland of JLS Consulting said he understood why the airlines had wanted to stick to their planned flights for Friday, given it is usually the busiest day of the week and it can be difficult for passengers to rebook.

“Having said that, with the benefit of hindsight, it would have been better if the airport operator and the airlines had agreed to reduce the number of flights on Friday to minimise the disruption to passengers,” he said.

Mr Strickland described as “impractical” a proposal issued by Gatwick airport on Monday to deal with Heathrow’s shortcomings.

Stewart Wingate, Gatwick’s chief executive, said 20 per cent of Heathrow’s flights during December, January and February, should be moved to his airport and Stansted, so as to avoid cancellations because of the weather.

Gatwick said it had suffered no flight cancellations because of snow at the airport.

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