Inquiry After Heathrow Snow Debacle

BAA HAS launched an inquiry to investigate: “what went wrong” at Heathrow Airport as flights were severely disrupted for days after about six inches of snow fell on December 18.  BAA says a panel of industry experts will judge the company’s: “planning, execution and recovery”.
Snowfalls affected many European airports in December but, due to its status as the world’s busiest international airport and Britain’s primary international gateway, Heathrow received the majority of the UK media’s attention.
Tens of thousands of passengers were stranded and hundreds had to sleep in the terminals after Heathrow closed its runways after the snowfall during the run up to the busy Christmas holiday period.  The airport’s operational capabilities received widespread condemnation from many quarters and were publicly criticized by the British Prime Minister David Cameron who said he was: “frustrated by the delays”.  The chaotic scenes that followed the airport’s closure were described as a national embarrassment in the media.
After BAA had faced considerable criticism, its Chief Executive Colin Matthews said the company would spend £10m on more winter equipment.  “The inquiry will forensically examine what went wrong at Heathrow, and look fundamentally at our ability to prepare and respond more effectively to periods of bad weather at an airport operating at its maximum capacity,” he said.  “The inquiry will have complete freedom to examine the sequence of events, and to deliver recommendations for BAA to implement.”
The inquiry will be led by BAA’s Non-executive Director Professor David Begg, who is also Chairman of the British Chambers of Commerce Infrastructure Commission.  He has said that the inquiry team will talk to airlines and passenger representatives.  The former heads of Canadian Airlines, Winnipeg Airport, Montreal Airport, Newark Liberty Airports and Zurich Airport will also be on the panel.
Heathrow has two runways.  Its northerly runway was re-opened after a matter of hours after the snowfall, but the airport’s snow team was unable to clear most of the aircraft parking stands and the airport effectively ground to a halt.  Its southerly runway reopened during the afternoon of December 21.
BAA made great efforts to communicate its message that people should stay away from the airport until it was clear that their flights were operating.  However, eventually, facilities became so overcrowded that passengers were physically prevented from entering some terminals as the airport descended into ‘meltdown’.  As criticism grew, BAA also banned the media from the airport.
Several days into the disruption Mr Matthews said he would forgo his annual bonus because of the disruption, but even this was criticized by some who felt it might have been a more significant gesture if he had taken his bonus and then donated it to charity.
In the aftermath of the airport disruption, British Airways has stated that the part closure of UK airports because of snow cost it more than £50m.  The vast majority of the airline’s flights operate from Heathrow and Gatwick.
Sir Richard Branson’s airline Virgin Atlantic says it is withholding the fees due to BAA because of the airport operator’s: “slow reaction” to the December snowfall.
Virgin says it will not pay any airport fees before it has seen the results of of BAA’s inquiry, due to be published at the end of March.
The airline’s Chief Executive, Steve Ridgway, told the Financial Times newspaper: “We’ve told BAA we are going to hold back some of the monies we owe them.
“Because while we accept – and indeed we did step up to – our responsibilities to look after our customers, we feel they should also feel some of that accountability.”
He added: “We want this inquiry to really focus on what happened and when the airport reasonably should have reopened and then we want compensation for all the costs we unnecessarily incurred after that.
“We’re going to do that by holding back the fees we pay BAA and when the inquiry comes out we will happily sit down and work out what the right numbers are.”