Session 2010-11
Publications on the internet

Written evidence from the British Air Line Pilots’ Association (BALPA)

About BALPA

1. Over 80% of the UK’s commercial pilots are members of BALPA and we are recognised as the main partner in 26 airlines covering all major UK operations. In addition over 1,000 commercial pilots have joined us even though their airline has no partnership agreement with BALPA and this includes a swath of Ryanair pilots.

2. BALPA was formed in 1937 following the antics of the CEO of Imperial Airways who was forcing professional pilots to operate when it was not, in the professional judgment of those pilots, safe to do so. This led to the Cadman report. Those origins remain a key feature of our DNA today and which is why our vision as an association is still "to make every flight a safe flight". It is also perhaps why a recent public poll by YouGov found that airline pilots belonged to one of the most trusted professions. It is a responsibility we take seriously.

BALPA’s position

3. Although the Committee’s frame of reference is the impact of the adverse weather on all transport sectors BALPA’s response will be with regard to air travel.

4. Any discussion around adverse weather operations needs to start from the stand point of making sure that any operation is safe. However, we believe it is possible to run a safe, economically-viable winter operation out of UK airports, as it is elsewhere in Europe and around the world. Pilots’ experiences and advice should form part of the discussion about how to make sure last year’s situation does not happen again and how to ensure that winter operations are safe.

5. Pilots are a valuable resource for regulators, the industry and government - a resource we believe is not sufficiently well used.

Facts

6. Adverse weather during the winter led to the closure of Heathrow’s southern runway, the closure of Gatwick for significant periods of time, the cancellation of 2,000 flights, disruption to thousands of passengers and hugely negative impacts on the UK economy.

7. Heathrow, Britain’s biggest airport meanwhile had just 46 specialist vehicles to clear the snow. On the normally busiest weekend before Christmas it closed both runways and only reopened the second runway two days later, with just 30% of scheduled flights operating.

Remote vs on-stand de-icing

8. During cold weather and at times of snow, aircraft must be de-iced to ensure wings are not contaminated with ice and snow. Contamination of aircraft wings and other surfaces degrades lift and has in the past been the cause of serious fatal accidents. De-icing and anti-icing of aircraft is carried out by spraying a glycol solution across the wings, tail and fin of the aircraft, and the fuselage too if snow has accumulated there.

9. The severity of the weather and volume of precipitation (rain, snow, freezing fog, etc.) affects the ‘holdover’ time. Holdover time is the maximum time between the start of the de-icing/anti-icing process and the start of the take-off roll. In weather such as that experienced during this winter holdover time can be less than 20 minutes in some circumstances. Note that holdover time begins when the glycol application starts, not when it ends.

10. De-icing can take place either on-stand or (as is the case in many overseas airports) remotely at special de-icing areas, usually close to the end of the runway. UK airports employ on-stand de-icing and do not have the facility for remote de-icing. BALPA believes that on-stand de-icing procedures contributed significantly to the problems experienced this winter.

11. On-stand de-icing, which may last 30 minutes or more, blocks up parking stands, so arriving aircraft cannot off-load their passengers. At Heathrow during the snow in December, aircraft were landing and then waiting on the taxiways, with passengers and cargo still on board, for periods of four hours or more. This is not acceptable.

12. Many more de-icing rigs are required to run an on-stand de-icing operation, because the de-icing rigs have to drive around the airport. Compare this to a remote de-icing facility where the entire de-icing operation can be carried out by a small number of static de-icing vehicles.

13. With on-stand de-icing, the mobile de-icing rig operation has to be rigidly controlled. Rather than remaining static and waiting for aircraft to come to them for de-icing, the rigs have to be directed by radio to drive around the airport, from stand to stand, to get to the next aircraft to de-ice which can result in long waits.

14. De-icing rigs have to keep returning to their base to fill up with fluid. Time spent driving back and forth is time spent not de-icing aircraft.

15. Correct timing of on-stand de-icing is difficult. Ideally the de-icer should be ready to start the procedure exactly 20 minutes before the flight’s Air Traffic Control slot to maximise holdover time. If this calculation is wrong there is a possibility of missing the slot and of holdover time expiry.

16. On-stand de-icing causes the apron (parking stand) to be awash with fluid overspray. We are extremely concerned about the health and safety implications of creating hazardous conditions for ramp staff and pilots. Aprons should be cleared and gritted, not swimming in de-icing fluid. (See paragraph 20 below.)

17. After de-icing, aircraft have to push back, start engines, and taxi out to the runway. If holdover time expires, and snow is accumulating on the aircraft, it must be de-iced all over again. On-stand de-icing significantly increases the likelihood of aircraft having to return to stand for repeat de-icing because of holdover time expiry, compared to a remote de-icing operation which takes place close to the runway.

18. On-stand de-icing wastes de-icing fluid as the rigs have to spray excess quantities of fluid, and with a far more concentrated mix, in order to maximise hold-over time. Excess fluid cannot easily be captured and recycled with on-stand de-icing. Remote de-icing facilities can have in-built sumps for capturing, filtering and reclaiming over-sprayed fluid. On-stand de-icing, therefore, in comparison to remote facilities, damages the environment and wastes resources.

19. Most airports with colder climates, such as those in Scandinavia, have remote de-icing facilities, where winter operations are usually harsher for longer than in the UK. However, even Madrid-Barajas Airport in Spain, which has higher average temperatures than London, maintains remote de-icing facilities. It is fair to say that remote de-icing facilities are the norm at busy overseas airports, including those with significantly warmer winter weather than the UK.

20. We are also concerned about personal safety on the ramp. Our interest has been especially driven by two very serious injuries which occurred to pilots whilst carrying out pre-flight departure walk-rounds (aircraft external inspections). Both occurred during winter operations, after de-icing procedures on stand had been under way for a few days. Both incidents led to broken bones, hospitalisation and long recuperation periods after surgery, following slips on surfaces which were contaminated by de-icing fluid residue.

Wider infrastructure problems

21. The Committee will be looking at the impact of adverse weather across all transport sectors. This is vital because the ability of a UK airport to operate during adverse weather is impacted upon by the ability of staff to get to the airport.

22. More attention must be paid to staff access to and around the airport as well as on the runways and taxiways. This includes making sure landside and airside roads and staff car parks are kept clear so that staff and operational equipment can move around the airport with reasonable safety.

Comparisons with other countries’ airport operations

23. Chicago’s O'Hare Airport has 440 staff, 400,000 gallons of de-icer, 21,000 tons of salt and nearly 200 pieces of snow removal equipment for car parks and public roadways. In a crisis they can call on up to 600 drivers and almost 163 pieces of snow equipment to clear the gate, ramp and cargo areas.

24. Charles de Gaulle, France’s biggest airport, spent £24 million on their snow-clearing equipment. 74 machines, including snowploughs, snow-blowers and de-icers, and plans to further increase their budget. Paris’ climate is comparable to London’s.

25. Stockholm’s Arlanda airport has never closed and boasts the world’s fastest snow-clearing team and a fleet of 17 Plough, Sweep and Blow (PSB) machines designed by Volvo. Nine machines are driven alongside each other, clearing the runways in less than ten minutes.

26. While international competitors clearly spend millions keeping airports open, Spanish-owned BAA, which runs Heathrow, spent just £500,000 on upgrading its snow clearing equipment staff training in 2010, and had just 46 vehicles available for snow clearing this winter, despite expected pre-tax profits of nearly £1 billion.

27. UK airports need to effectively compete especially against European hubs for traffic. This is not just about making travelling easier for the British public, as important as that is, it is also about ensuring that passengers do not make a conscious effort to avoid UK airports in favour of those in the rest of Europe to make connections.

Conclusions

28. Pilots want to be able to operate during adverse weather conditions, but must do so safely. We believe this must be just as possible in the UK as it is at overseas airports.

29. De-icing procedures are just one of the many areas that must be covered in a pilot’s preparations for take-off. The additional pressure of arranging for the correct level of de-icing at the correct time, being conscious of holdover times and the commercial pressure to make the flight’s ATC slot, all add to a pilot’s workload and stress levels. Added to this we have the additional effects of pilot fatigue, which will be made much worse under the currently tabled proposals from EASA. We believe remote de-icing facilities provide for a much less stressful operation for pilots which in turn contributes to the safe operation of an aircraft.

30. Remote de-icing areas should be constructed at all busy UK airports. Heathrow and Gatwick in particular must be provided with such facilities if the December 2010 experience is not to be repeated.

31. The infrastructure has to be put into place to ensure all staff have access to and around the airport in order to ensure a winter operation can be successfully mounted.

32. Pilots have been pointing out the deficiencies in UK airport infrastructure for many years. We are only too aware of the gaps in the UK operation, because we fly all over the world, and see at first-hand how things are achieved elsewhere. Many of the points we have raised have also been made in evidence to and in support of the Winter Resilience Review.

33. Now is the time to act. BALPA offers its overwhelming support to ensuring a safer and a more efficient UK Commercial Aviation winter operation and would gladly make our Flight Safety experts available if further information or support is needed to achieve this.

February 2011