December 23, 2010 10:45 pm

The wrong kind of airport

The state of chaos that enveloped Heathrow was a case of shoddy resources and poor planning

The back end of last week didn’t go quite as I’d penned it in last Saturday’s column – partly because it seems next to impossible to rely on any part of the UK’s (and some of Europe’s) transport infrastructure. This is partly because ’tis the season to shave a few million off the balance sheet wherever possible even if it means annoying and losing thousands of customers in the process. The board meeting that was supposed to be held in Zurich last Friday was cancelled as a precaution against flight cancellations by Europe’s major airlines. While it’s hardly the way to run a business, we made the decision to abort the year-end round table because we had a hunch everyone would be stranded over the weekend and, as predicted, most of the flights we’d booked from various points across Europe were cancelled.

I’m not entirely sure when modern aircraft and well-funded airports developed an allergy to snow and frost but over the past few years the mere possibility of the mercury dropping below zero sends airline bosses and airport publicists into a panic. A cold snap a few weeks ago seemed to be the perfect excuse to bundle together low-yield flights and cut as many services as possible out of Heathrow. As for the fiasco that unfolded at Europe’s busiest airport last weekend, the airport’s operator and some of its biggest clients should have their licences revoked. The same goes for the main national broadcaster.

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Tyler Brûlé

In what might have been a bid to improve holiday TV ratings or bolster their public service credentials, the broadcasters did more to whip up the storms than any front drifting down from the Arctic. There was some miserable weather about but much of it wasn’t the stuff that should be bringing a G8 economy to a grinding halt. Rather than asking why a developed economy such as the UK should be buckling under a cold weather snap and a blanket of snow (just a dusting in some areas), most of the media just ran with stories of stranded travellers, road chaos and a system that wasn’t coping. What was missing from most of the coverage was the all-important, “Why isn’t the UK able to deal with this and what does it do for the nation’s brand?”

My original plan to fly out of Zurich to Tokyo turned into a departure from Heathrow on Friday evening. With little snow on the ground and clear skies, the airport was down to one runway and you could sense that the whole thing could collapse at any moment. As we lined up for departure, I could already list the excuses that would be carted out over the weekend. As we rolled down the runway and rumbled above Windsor, the English countryside looked quite peaceful and cosy but I could imagine how many poor souls were dealing with boilers that seem to be designed to implode when people need them most and houses with no insulation.

By the time I reached Japan 11 hours later, the worst had happened – British Airways had cancelled most of its flights and the country was letting the elements get the better of it. If you were sitting in Sapporo, Calgary or Chicago, you might have thought that workers at Heathrow were battling with metres of drifting snow and Arctic-style conditions given the general state of chaos that enveloped the airport but it was more a case of shoddy resources and poor planning – a running theme when it comes to transport and the nation’s infrastructure.

The UK’s inability to cope doesn’t have so much to do with the fall in mercury as it does with a fall in service standards. An international airport in a country that does, in fact, get snow (despite protestations that it doesn’t) should be able to field enough de-icing trucks, ploughs, gritting vehicles and staff to deal with a winter storm. Sadly, conditions are so poor according to some airlines it is as if Heathrow believes its natural home to be the tropics rather than the north Atlantic.

I spent the start of the week discussing the fall-out with friends who had family stuck at the airport, and colleagues who said the fiasco was “typically UK”. As members of parliament pointed fingers at each other over issues of preparedness, I wondered what the actual cost was to brand Britain. Would a chief executive from Seoul think differently about investing in the UK if he saw how his children were treated while stranded at Heathrow? Would he be so keen to argue for building a logistics centre in Slough versus Munich if this is how the airport functioned? How would the delegation from Kuala Lumpur feel about investing in the UK after spending the night wrapped in blankets on a cold floor at Terminal Five? I’m sure that a branding wizard somewhere has a formula that could come up with a dollar value for the damage that such incidents do to a country’s ranking in the world and I’m sure it’s astronomically more than the cost of a few extra cherry-pickers equipped with de-icing fluid, a fleet of dump trucks, snow ploughs and a mountain of grit and salt.

Tyler Brûlé is editor-in-chief of Monocle

tyler.brule@ft.com

More columns at www.ft.com/brule

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