Session 2010-11
Publications on the internet

Written evidence from Thomson Airways (AWC 03)

Thomson Airways, the airline of Thomson and First Choice Holidays, welcomes the opportunity to present evidence to the Transport Select Committee relating to the impact of recent adverse weather conditions. Thomson Airways is the UK’s third largest airline, behind BA and EasyJet that operates from 22 UK airports including London Gatwick, Manchester, Birmingham, Luton, Glasgow, Cardiff and many of the smaller regional airports. As an airline providing seat capacity for tour operators, it is our general policy that we do not cancel flights, as there will nearly always be passengers overseas in resort awaiting their return flight back to the UK. Because of the wide range of airports from which we operate we were able to witness the spectrum of responses to the severe weather conditions that were experienced at UK airports in November and December of 2010.

Thomson Airways wishes to record its thanks and appreciation to the many hundreds of workers who struggled in to work at airports, along with those that stayed on to work additional hours to provide assistance to reopen the airports, also to those who spent hours assisting passengers in very difficult circumstances across the country.

It is fair to say that despite the January 2010 disruption, because of adverse weather, UK airports and local infrastructures were not prepared to cope with the severe weather we experienced in November and December last, as a result we were constantly playing catch-up. In reviewing our own response to the weather situation we have looked at Infrastructure resilience, Communications, Pre-planning and Operational resilience and we will address those areas in this submission.

Infrastructure Resilience:

1. As has already been stated, generally UK airports were unprepared and ill equipped to deal with the extreme conditions that were experienced, this ranged from insufficient runway snow clearing equipment to predominantly insufficient equipment to clear aircraft parking stands. In some instances airports claimed that it was the responsibility of the airline or its ground handling agent to clear apron and parking stand areas. Airlines pay significant sums to airports for landing and parking charges and we see the provision of snow and ice clearance for all airport runways, taxiways and apron areas as the sole responsibility of the airport authority.

2. Understandably airports place major effort into clearing the runways and taxiways as their initial priority, however equal priority needs to be placed on clearing apron and parking stands, as otherwise airlines will not be able to move their aircraft when the runway and airport does reopen. We have attached 5 photographs of the apron and aircraft stands, taken at Birmingham airport, where it appears evident that the aircraft would not be able to manoeuvre; yet the airport had just declared itself ‘open’.

3. The Minister for Transport has stated that she will look at what needs to be addressed in the forthcoming Aviation Bill to ensure that airports are able to cope with extreme weather conditions. We would support such a move that included provisions giving clear and unequivocal responsibility that the airport authority is responsible for clearing runways, taxiways, apron and parking stand areas of the airport and that equal priority and resources should be provided to that end.

4. The main problem experienced at airports was that of surface access, particularly at Gatwick where public transport effectively ground to a halt. Thus even when the runway was opened, we could not get aircrew and duty staff to or from the airport, either because the roads had not been cleared or no public transport was operating. Around many of the regional airports the situation was similar in that direct access roads were kept clear, but smaller roads were not cleared.

5. There were instances of airports laying on bus transfer services between a central point and the airport, this assisted to some degree, but we believe more needs to be done to ensure local surface access resilience to and from airports. Maybe considering the need for priority for ‘reserved occupations’, such as aircrew, airport fire crews, snow teams etcetera.

Communications:

6. It was in the area of communications that proved to be the most problematic, but also in other areas the most effective. The media were at times making it very difficult for us to run our operations as they were making general sweeping statements about flight cancellations at a number of airports, whereas we wanted passengers to turn up as our flights were not cancelled. The message needs to be that passengers should either check with the airport or with their airline.

7. Some airports set up their crisis communications cells, and these generally worked well with good communications and telephone conferences with stakeholders to give updates on the latest situation, especially airport reopening times. Whilst some may criticise decisions of Gatwick to announce a closure for 24 hours, given the nature of the disruption caused, this was probably a good call, and gave our airline and tour operator planners the ability to manage the flight programme and disruption. At the opposite end of the scale were airports that give operators 2 hourly updates that end up with creeping delays, where from a passenger’s perspective these are the worst of all worlds.

8. The main areas of concern were around the ability of surface transport operators to state what services and when they were running. Headlines run on Sky News of ‘cancellation of all flights from airports’ are not helpful to anyone.

9. Some airports, particularly Gatwick were using a variety of communication methods including text messages with status updates to our duty teams, these were very well received.

10. In hindsight, more communication between airports and stakeholders could have been made once weather forecasts were known and the potential consequences of disrupted operations known. Better coordination of the implementation of snow plans and steps being taken by airports to prepare for the expected conditions could have assisted with our own planning.

Pre-planning:

11. We believe that it became evident that those airports that had carried out sufficient pre-planning were better placed to cope with the weather situation and to place members of staff on standby for de-icing and snow clearance duties. We question whether sufficient thought had been given to clearance of aprons and parking stands and also to surface access issues that were likely to arise.

12. We also question how robust the liaison and pre planning with the local authority councils responsible for road clearance at the UK’s airports has been over the last year. Whilst accepting that transport planners need to give priority to access to hospitals and major trunk routes, we believe that priority should be given to transport hubs such as airports. If that is already the case, this was not evident at many of the UK’s airports during the weather disruption.

13. Some airports had not made sufficient planning for storage of winter equipment leading to water vehicles with frozen pipes and de-icing equipment unserviceable due to low temperatures. One instance of the airport closing at Doncaster, because the Fire Engines had frozen overnight, despite the weather forecast showing that extremely low temperatures were highly likely. A contingency to run the engines at regular intervals should have been put in place. Better provision of heated equipment storage areas would have prevented these preventable instances, along with the consequential delay for passengers.

14. It is inevitable when the two busiest London Airports are both closed flights will divert to other UK, and continental airports. Such diversions are to be expected, yet airports appeared either unprepared for diversions or would not even accept diversions. We had instances of passengers being held on the aircraft on the ground before they could disembark because of staff shortages at the airport.

15. At Birmingham airport we encountered delays of 6 hours, with crews running out of operational duty hours, because the airport had accepted so many diversions it was unable to manage the normal traffic of its incumbent carriers. We believe that any review of airport regulation should specify minimum service levels for incumbent carriers and for diverted flights.

Operational Resilience:

16. Some of the issues that arose during the weather disruption were around the operational resilience of the infrastructure, including lack of surface access, which lead to a large number of airports being heavily congested with arriving passengers who were unable to travel onwards to their destinations. This was particularly the case at Gatwick, Manchester, Doncaster, Birmingham and Glasgow all of which became very overcrowded.

17. We have already mentioned the problems of equipment failure due to poor pre-planning, but we had concerns relating to insufficient manpower specifically to clear apron and parking stand areas, and wonder if this is an area where airports might be required to provide certain levels of service as part of their duties under the upcoming aviation bill, or

whether limited use of the armed services might be drafted in to assist in a ‘national or local emergency’.

18. The one area that Thomson Airways did not suffer during the recent weather disruption was that of insufficient aircraft de-icing fluid, where lessons from January 2010 had been learned.

19. For our own part the operational readiness state of the airline was elevated to ‘red’ and the Thomson Airways Crisis Management Centre was active for a period of 2 days from the morning of 1st December to the evening of 3rd December. This we believe assisted us to manage the situation and provide the best possible service to our customers on delayed flights. Our crisis management centre was also re-activated between 17th and 23rd December to manage the weather delays during that week leading up to the main Christmas travel period. By contrast we had no communication from the Department for Transport throughout the whole period of the disruption to our flight operations.

20. Thomson Airways recognises that any flight disruption is distressing to our passengers and we have trained Special Assistance Teams (SAT) on call H24 across the country to report to airports and assist with passenger welfare issues. During the significant weather disruptions we were unable to deploy the number of SAT teams because of the surface transport issues highlighted earlier in this submission.

Conclusion:

The weather conditions of late November and December 2010 were unusual, but given that we had experienced similar weather at the start of 2010, it was particularly disappointing that more airports were not prepared and ready to meet the challenges that we faced in November and December2010. An airports authority is generally very poor at clearing the aprons and stands which in turn reduces the ability of the airport to become fully operational again. Thomson Airways has been able to identify some best practice, for example the communications emanating from Gatwick at an operational level through their activation of their crisis cell.

By far the biggest obstacle to resumption of normal operations was that of surface access to airports, where we faced particular difficulties in getting our colleagues to and from the airport, particularly aircrews and consideration should be given to prioritising airport access in similar situations. Similarly our passengers were either unable to get home, or get to the airport.

We believe that airport regulation should be strengthened to ensure airport resilience in the case of adverse weather conditions particularly around a clear statement of the airport authorities’ responsibilities whilst also ensuring that flight diversions are managed in a way that minimises disruption to incumbent carriers yet provides a proficient service to any diverted flights.

January 2011