Session 2010-11
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Written evidence from Virgin Atlantic Airways (AWC 16)


1. Virgin Atlantic Airways welcomes the Committee’s inquiry into the impact on transport of recent adverse weather conditions and is pleased to submit comments for consideration.

2. Virgin Atlantic was established in 1984 to provide a competitive customer service orientated alternative for business and leisure passengers on long-haul routes between the UK and major destinations. We serve 28 destinations in the US, Caribbean, Africa, India, Asia and Australia from Heathrow, Gatwick, Manchester and Glasgow. We operate 38 long-haul aircraft, employ over 8,000 people and carry more than 5 million passengers and 200,000 tonnes of high-value exports and imports each year.

3. Our flying programme was disrupted by two significant snow events in December 2010. The first event mainly affected operations at Gatwick airport between 1 December and 4 December. The second event affected Heathrow and Gatwick airports and caused severe disruptions to our services between 18 December and 23 December. Our services from Gatwick largely cater to the leisure and visiting friends and relatives (VFR) markets travelling to the leading tourist destinations in the USA and the Caribbean. Our services from Heathrow cater to the business, leisure and VFR markets travelling to the world’s leading cities.

4. In total approximately 55,000 passengers were affected by the disruption. We are still receiving claims for hotel accommodation and subsistence expenses, as well as refunds for unused tickets, so the full cost of the disruption will not be fully clear for several more weeks. We anticipate that the overall cost could be more than £10 million.

First Snow Event – Gatwick – 1 December to 4 December

5. 18 Virgin Atlantic flights were cancelled due to Gatwick’s closure between the early hours of 1 December and 06.00 on 3 December. Approximately 5,000 passengers were affected by the disruption:

· 1 December – all 5 outbound flights were cancelled and inbound flights were diverted to Heathrow. 4 ferry flights departed from Heathrow to the Caribbean and USA.

· 2 December – all 6 outbound flights cancelled and inbounds diverted to Heathrow. 5 ferry flights departed Heathrow

· 3 December – reduced programme operating from Gatwick, with one departure transferred to Heathrow.

· 4 December – full flying programme from Gatwick restored.

6. Heathrow airport itself was largely unaffected by the snowfall at Gatwick, but we were forced to cancel two flights as some crew and ground staff were unable to get to work due to poor road conditions.

Second Snow Event – Heathrow – 17 December to 23 December

7. 170 Virgin Atlantic flights were cancelled during the disruption at Heathrow between 18 and 23 December. Gatwick airport was also affected, closing on the morning of 18 December, but re-opening fully on the following day. Approximately 50,000 passengers were affected by the disruption.

· 18 December – 40 flights cancelled including our entire Heathrow operation. 14 aircraft were diverted to airports across UK and Europe, including Lyon, Marseille, Palma, Hannover, and Shannon. Just 3 Gatwick flights departed before that airport also closed, with two inbounds diverted to Stansted.

· 19 December – Heathrow opens but with severe restrictions. No inbound flights accepted and just 4 Virgin Atlantic departures. Gatwick reopened in the morning allowing us to operate a full programme, albeit with severe delays.

· 20 December – Heathrow introduces a capacity constraints policy that allows airlines to operate one third of their normal flying programme. We operated a limited number of outbound flights and two ferry flights. Stranded aircraft re-position to Heathrow when the airport starts accepting inbound flights.

· 21 December – Heathrow’s second runway finally re-opens late afternoon. We operate 10 outbound flights.

· 22 December –12 out of 20 outbound flights depart.

· 23 December - 15 out of 21 outbound flights depart.

· 24 December –full Virgin Atlantic Heathrow flying programme resumes.

How we helped our passengers

8. Virgin Atlantic’s priority throughout the period of disruption was the welfare of our passengers. We did everything possible to ensure the welfare of our customers within the constraints of the disruption we faced.

9. As with any event that causes a flight to be cancelled or delayed for more than 5 hours, we offered all affected customers the following options:

· cancel and receive a full refund of unused flights;

· cancel and re-book/re-route on a later, more convenient date to same destination;

· cancel and re-book on a Virgin Atlantic flight to another destination - if the new fare is lower the difference will be refunded or any additional fare cost will be charged; or

· do not cancel and re-book/re-route to the same final destination on the next available flight.

10. As an EU-based airline, all affected passengers who chose the next available flight option, whether stuck in an overseas destination or in the UK, were covered by EU regulation 261/2004 which establishes common rules on compensation and assistance to passengers in the event of denied boarding, cancellation or long delay of flights. We offered the full EU care package to all stranded passengers:

· Hotel accommodation

· Meals and refreshments in reasonable relation to the waiting time

· 2 short telephone calls, or telex, or fax, or e-mail messages.

· Transport to and from the hotel.

11. A letter setting out passengers’ entitlements under EC261 (including instructions for how to claim back all reasonable hotel and subsistence costs) was circulated to all of our airport staff on the evening of Friday 17 December, ready to be handed out to passengers in the event of any disruption the following day. Our airport staff worked tirelessly throughout the disruption to look after stranded passengers in extremely challenging circumstances and with limited information from the airport.

12. Following the experience of the volcanic ash disruption, we knew that it would be impossible to secure sufficient hotel accommodation for all disrupted passengers in the vicinity of Heathrow given the number of people affected across all airlines. We prioritised passengers requiring special assistance and those stranded far away from home. Staff also distributed refreshment vouchers, complementary beverages and blankets at the terminal.

13. Our call centre handled over 85,000 calls between 18-24 December. We would normally expect to handle around 38,000 calls in the same period. Staff from across the business volunteered in our customer contact centres to handle the sheer volume of calls. At times we experienced long call wait times (over 3hrs), but by 20 December our average wait time was 7 minutes. We also issued more than thirty detailed web updates to passengers, contacted disrupted passengers by SMS messages where contact details had been provided, and used social media to provide real time updates and answer queries.

Lessons to be learned

14. Virgin Atlantic is contributing to this inquiry and BAA’s own investigation to ensure that lessons are learned and the right mitigation measures are put in place to minimise disruption in the future. We recognise that heavy snowfall in a short space of time will probably always cause some disruption, but our experience in December at Heathrow makes us certain that the response to such events can and must be improved. There are a number of issues that could be explored at length, but our two principal concerns are around:

· the execution of the crisis management plan ("Snow Plan"), including the timeliness of Heathrow’s actions and the length of time it took to open the second runway; and

· the standard of information flow from BAA to airlines.

Execution of the crisis management plan

15. We are concerned that key elements of Heathrow airport’s Snow Plan were not implemented. For example, the snow plan states that "Airside Operations Management may, if appropriate, call a Snow Contingency Meeting once a significant snow fall likely to effect the operation is forecast". The first meeting involving airlines was not held until 11.00 on Sunday 19 December, 24 hours after closure and following intensive lobbying by the airline community including Virgin Atlantic. By contrast, Virgin Atlantic’s own "Amber" Team met at 1500 hrs on Friday 17 December and contingency plans were immediately put into action including securing accommodation close to the airports and Head Office for key personnel.

16. Like the Prime Minister at the time, we were particularly concerned about the lack of urgency at which the second runway at Heathrow was re-opened. Reasons cited included a shortage of de-icing fluid and personnel, justifications which were challenged at the time by the airline community.

17. On several occasions, from 11.00 on 19 December onwards, airlines called for BAA to request the assistance of the armed forces with snow clearance from the Government. We remain unsure whether this possibility was explored by BAA. Early in the morning of 21 December, BAA advised by SMS that there were no short-term plans to reopen the southern runway until 06.00 on 22 December at the earliest. BAA advised that stocks of de-icer were en route to the airport, although insufficient quantities to maintain a two runway operation in the event of further snow. However, at 14.40 we were advised by SMS that the southern runway was being cleared. This was confirmed at a centralised airport-wide meeting at 16.00 when airlines were told that de-icing stocks were now available and that the second runway would re-open from 16.30.

18. It has been suggested that airlines were fully consulted and happy with the content of Heathrow’s ‘Snow Plan’. Virgin Atlantic first had sight of the Winter 2010/2011 "Aerodrome Snow Plan" at a meeting on 10 October 2010 alongside other airlines. We understand BAA used the meeting as an opportunity to work through the escalation and implementation of the snow plan, rather than to provide an opportunity for airlines to consider and influence the contents of the plan.

19. We acknowledge that, given this snow plan is reviewed every year rather than started from scratch, we could have taken an earlier opportunity to input comments and suggest amendments. Virgin Atlantic expects Heathrow to actively involve airlines in the development of a new snow plan rather than just the delivery of a finished plan. This includes consultation on appropriate levels of investment in equipment and other CAPEX spend.

Information flow from BAA to airlines

20. We consider the information flow from Heathrow to airlines to have been slow, limited and at times contradictory. There was a consistent failure to communicate adequate information in a timely, organised and controlled manner which severely undermined our efforts to take effective and informed operational decisions, and exacerbated the confusion and frustration experienced by our passengers. For example, Virgin Atlantic first heard about the reopening of the second runway via the Department for Transport and a public statement by the Prime Minister. BAA tweeted the news some 30 minutes before the airline community was officially informed by SMS, causing a repeat of the passenger confusion and mixed messages experienced earlier on in the period of disruption.

21. Throughout the worst of the disruption, official communications between BAA and airlines were issued by SMS. These SMS messages represented the only information VAA’s airport operations team had available to pass on to passengers. Despite calls from the airline community, there was little focus on centralised airport-wide meetings on airside status, or consultation with airlines on the reopening of the airfield. This can be contrasted with London Gatwick airport’s response to the disruption earlier in December, whereby they immediately established a crisis team at their command centre at the airport. This team was available 24/7 – in person or by phone – and able to provide immediate responses to airlines’ queries as well as regular proactive updates. After some hours, BAA started to convene conference calls but the dial-in numbers were frequently corrected or changed, and calls were poorly chaired so that they were chaotic and of little practical use to airlines.

22. We received the first SMS communication from BAAT3Ops (BAA Terminal 3 Operations’ Local Business Response Team) at 0719 on Saturday 18 December. This message advised that BAA would be monitoring the snow forecast throughout the day. At 10.50 an SMS advised of Heathrow’s closure for all arrivals and departures. A subsequent SMS at 12.23 reported the ongoing closure of both runways, with no ETA for reopening. Subsequent messages at 12.46 and 15.08 suggested that the runways would remain closed until at least 16.00. At 16.41 it was suggested that there would be limited departures from 18.00. A call between our Operations Director and a counterpart at BAA at 19.14 finally confirmed that the airport would not reopen at all. This was not communicated by SMS until 19.33. Unfortunately, BAA had already informed passengers waiting in Terminal 3 that the airport would not reopen before having communicated this to airlines.

23. Poor communication lead to several missed opportunities. For example, throughout Sunday 19 December we received a series of SMS from BAAT3Ops, variously stating that that there would be no arrivals, then that LHR would receive some diverted flights and a request for details, then it was decided that there would be no arrivals after all and only a handful of departures. This confusion and the eventual late notice of the reopening of one runway meant that opportunities to repatriate diverted flights were wasted.

24. Our passenger’s direct experience was undermined by poor communication from the airport. For example, on 20 December at 15.54 unhelpful communications were issued direct to passengers, advising them not to travel to Terminals 1 or 3 due to congestion. This meant that many passengers who had confirmed seats failed to turn up or missed their flights.


25. Our experience at other airports in our network demonstrates that Heathrow’s performance fell below the level we should expect from a leading international hub airport. JFK International Airport experienced its own snow-related closure in the run-up to Christmas. Its first crisis team meeting was called within minutes of the airport operator’s expectation that the airport would close. JFK then reopened within 24 hours – despite much heavier snow fall – by which time Heathrow was only just calling its first crisis team meeting with airlines.

26. Virgin Atlantic would be interested to read any recommendations the Committee might want to make within the existing regulatory framework in respect of the following issues:

· clarity regarding requirements, roles, responsibilities, communications strategy and service level expectations with a new Snow Plan;

· consultation with airlines and third party service providers on a new Snow Plan;

· proportionate additional investment, resources and personnel expenditures to be included in a new Snow Plan; and  

· Heathrow Airport Limited’s liability to passengers and airlines in such events.

27. We would welcome recommendations in the context of broader discussions about the forthcoming Airport Economic Regulation Bill and planning for Q6.  In particular, regarding the inclusion of winter resilience service quality metrics in licence conditions and enforcement mechanisms in the new regulatory framework.

February 2011