Session 2010-11
Publications on the internet

Written evidence from the Association of British Travel Agents (ABTA) (AWC 25)

1. ABTA – The Travel Association was founded in 1950 - and is the leading travel trade association in the UK with over 1,4000 members. Our members range from small, specialist tour operators and independent travel agencies through to publicly listed companies and household names, from call centres to internet booking services to high street shops. ABTA members provide 90% of the overseas air package holidays sold in the UK, as well as selling millions of independent arrangements for travel both overseas and in the UK.

2. We welcome the opportunity to contribute to your inquiry. Our comments are focussed primarily on the two December snowfalls and impact on passengers flying from UK airports.

3. We share the concern of Government that Heathrow was closed for as long as it was following the 18 December snowfall particularly as it dented consumer confidence with thousands of passengers having their holiday plans disrupted. We appreciate the snowfall was unprecedented but feel that the length of closure could have been reduced and disruption circumvented if BAA had adopted a different approach to the snow.

4. We have welcomed the BAA’s Winter Resilience Enquiry under the chairmanship of Professor David Begg, have made a submission directly to the panel and look forward to hearing the outcome.

5. Gatwick put the lessons learnt from its closure at the beginning of December to good use and was able to open after only a few hours before Christmas.

6. Priority was given at both airports to clearing the runways and taxiways. However, the stands and aprons were not similarly cleared which meant operations could not resume as quickly as might have been hoped, unreasonably raising passengers’ expectations. Equally, the icy roads and reduced surface transport to airports, over which we recognise airports have little control, meant that for some it was just not safe to travel to the airports. The passenger’s journey starts at their home, not just at the airport.

7. We are pleased that Heathrow and Gatwick have since invested in additional equipment and airside operations to bolster winter resilience. We appreciate that airports need to be prudent in terms of investment and spending limited funds and acknowledge there is a balance to be struck in terms of investment in this equipment.

8. Although we appreciate that we have not seen weather as bad as this winter’s for many years and the UK’s climate is unpredictable at best, a repetition of the scenes we saw at Gatwick in early December and at Heathrow before Christmas must be avoided at all costs as it is seriously damaging to both airports’ reputations and the travel industry as a whole.


9. In any disruption, ABTA believes that effective and clear communications with the travelling public and with the travel industry are a priority. Thousands of passengers had their holiday plans disrupted in the run-up to Christmas severely denting consumer confidence. Good, effective, regular and clear communications can significantly ease pressure and consumer sentiment towards such occurrences.

10. There was some confused messaging with passengers unclear as to whether they should attempt to travel to the airport or not. It is essential that the airports liaise with their airline partners to ensure that all are giving the same message and that this is replicated on the airport and airline websites. ABTA’s line has always been that customers should call their operator or airline and this was our message during the many media appearances ABTA’s Communications team made during the closure. We are able to liaise quickly with our member travel agent and tour operator members to ensure that they are giving the same message.

11. We have offered to both airports the opportunity for greater interface with their communications team in times of crisis to ensure that future messaging does not conflict and communications with our mutual customers are efficient and accurate. This would also avoid the need for the airports to have to communicate directly with all the tour operators carrying passengers.

12. A useful parallel is how ABTA works with the Foreign Office on overseas crises. Our specialist Destinations & Sustainability team maintains close dialogue sharing information, intelligence and communication lines in order to present as seamless and united a front as possible to the travelling public. ABTA, in turn, works closely with travel agents and tour operators on crisis management including disruption to travel infrastructure, in the UK and overseas, whether it is as a result of snow or other weather conditions, to minimise the disruption to passengers. We believe we could forge a closer working relationship with both Heathrow and Gatwick to our mutual benefit and we would welcome the Committee making a recommendation in this regard.


13. As an island nation, the UK is very dependent on having adequate air capacity. ABTA has long supported additional runway capacity in the South East, particularly at Heathrow and Gatwick, to allow for long-term growth. We were very concerned at the Government’s announcement ruling out further runways at Heathrow, Gatwick and Stansted and its intention to make these airports better and not bigger. Furthermore, mixed mode operation for Heathrow has been rejected.

14. This begs the question as to what can be done to increase capacity overall and, more importantly, to allow the airports to recover after any incident.

15. With both airports operating at already peak capacity there is no spare capacity spare to allow for recovery from weather related situations, such as experienced during the December snowfalls and the April 2010 volcanic ash cloud. A further example is when an accident such as BA’s Boeing 777 crash landed just short of Heathrow’s 27L runway in January 2008, closing it fully for 24 hours concentrating all arriving and departing traffic on the one remaining runway. Spare capacity is not only essential for jobs and growth but also for efficient management of incidents and delays, however they are caused.

16. Contrast this with the continental airports at Paris Charles de Gaulle, Amsterdam Schiphol, Frankfurt and Madrid all of whom have substantially more runways with the capacity to recover quickly. This gave our continental competition a speedier recovery time meaning less flights were delayed or cancelled and fewer passengers disrupted. In essence, their capacity reduced the impact on the airport and the wider economy as a result.

17. We feel that it is essential that this additional capacity is forthcoming and we will be pushing for it to be part of the Government’s Aviation Policy Framework. Pending this, we would urge some formal relaxation of the rules both on mixed mode operations at Heathrow and on night flying at Heathrow and Gatwick.

18. Thank you for taking our comments into consideration. We would welcome the opportunity to contribute further or expand upon any of the above points.

February 2011