Session 2010-11
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Written evidence from British Airways (AWC 31)

British Airways welcomes the opportunity to contribute to the Committee’s inquiry -"The impact of the recent cold weather on the road and rail networks in England and Wales and on the UK’s airports, including the extent to which lessons were learnt from winter 2009-10, the provision of accurate weather forecasts to transport providers in advance of the bad weather, and the recommendations of the Quarmby reviews of the resilience of England’s transport systems in 2010."

British Airways is one of the world’s largest international airlines, carrying almost 32 million passengers worldwide on around 750 daily flights in the financial year to 31 March 2010. The airline employs almost 40,000 people, the vast majority of these at its sites throughout the UK.

The airline’s two main operating bases are London’s Heathrow and Gatwick airports, with a smaller base at London City airport serving New York and European business destinations. From these, British Airways flies 240 aircraft to 155 destinations in 70 countries. In addition to passengers, the airline also transported 760,000 tonnes of cargo around the globe in 2009/10.

1. OVERVIEW

1.1 This winter, British Airways has dealt with snow and adverse weather impacts on its operation since mid-November. This has been one of the worst winters for weather-related disruption internationally in many years, and the airline continues to deal with problems across its global network.

1.2 The snow conditions at Heathrow Airport on 18 December can be described as an exceptional event. The volume and speed of the snow fall were unprecedented, and the problems were compounded by the airport’s capacity constraints and consequent lack of operational contingency - it operates at 99% of capacity – and of high customer volumes in the pre-Christmas period.

1.3 Beyond the UK, the US in particular has endured heavy snow – 32 inches had fallen by early January at some East Coast airports, compared to a winter-long average of 26 inches. A major snowstorm on the East Coast resulted in flight cancellations on 26 and 27 December, and further snowstorms have occurred since. Indeed, British Airways has had to cancel a number of flights to the US this week.

1.4 Major European airports have also suffered weather closures and mass flight cancellations this winter, including Frankfurt, Amsterdam and Paris. Geneva, which regularly deals with heavy snowfalls, was also forced to close on several occasions. On 24 December alone, Brussels, Düsseldorf, Dublin and Paris Charles De Gaulle were closed because of snow and ice conditions.

1.5 This memorandum focuses on London’s airports. British Airways flies to five other mainland UK airports, all of which were impacted by the weather conditions to varying degrees. Aberdeen, Edinburgh, Glasgow and Newcastle had closures at different times that led to flight cancellations but recovery was usually swift. Manchester Airport remained open to receive several longhaul diversions when Heathrow and Gatwick were closed, as did other UK airports in addition to those mentioned above.

2. IMPACT ON UK’S AIRPORTS

2.1 London Heathrow:

2.1.1 Although Heathrow Airport experienced snow disruption in late November and early December, the following comments refer specifically to the period following the significant snowfall on 18 December. The weather forecasting for this event is covered in a later section.

2.1.2 Based on extensive experience and our assessment of the weather forecasts and conditions, British Airways believed that Heathrow Airport would be forced to close during mid-morning on Saturday 18 December because of an unprecedented snowstorm. It should be noted that any airport would have been forced to close in the conditions forecast that morning – this was not a closure generated simply because it was happening at Heathrow.

2.1.3 In Terminal 5, our base terminal, the check-in area was close to capacity at 0600 and we anticipated major problems if more customers arrived for flights that were subsequently cancelled. We therefore took the decision at 0730 to cancel all British Airways flights from the airport between 1000 and 1700. (Snow was also expected at Gatwick, albeit less intensely, and our entire shorthaul programme between 1000 to 1659 at Gatwick was cancelled too.) This was widely reported across all media outlets, with widespread criticism of our actions at that time.

2.1.4 British Airways – and NATS - knew the airport could not remain open, but others did not. There was a misjudgement on the part of BAA/Heathrow Airport Ltd (HAL) and others in the unrealistic expectation of the ability of the airport to remain open through the forecast and actual weather conditions. Their assessment of this ability influenced decisions on the day, and led to the confusing situation of the airport’s largest carrier cancelling its schedule whilst the airport claimed ‘business as usual’. The ‘Command and Control’ structure was not used proactively or efficiently during this time.

2.1.5 Inaccurate reporting by the media contributed to the confusion and created problems for customers. The airport was declared closed at 1126, but the broadcast media continued to report that it was open and operational as late as 1230. Customers thus received conflicting information about the situation, which undermined the decisive action taken by British Airways and added to their confusion about what to do.

2.1.6 The consequence of the assurances that the airport would remain open and that it was open when actually closed was that tens of thousands of passengers continued to turn up for flights that were cancelled, creating chaos in other terminals.

2.1.7 Overall, the airport failed to recover as quickly as it could have done, and the impact of the 18 December snowfall was extended unnecessarily. British Airways has developed extensive contingency plans for recovery following significant disruption, honed over many years, and was disappointed that this was not replicated by HAL. There was little evidence of forward planning and a lack of experience about how to return to regular operations effectively and efficiently when the airport re-opened.

2.1.8 A major concern during the 18-19 December was the emphasis on opening the runway, and lack of focus on the airfield as a whole – the taxiway, apron and stand infrastructure that is an essential part of the airport’s efficient operation. Many of the problems faced by all airlines at Heathrow on re-opening arose from the lack of attention to these areas, and it impeded the return to normal operations.

2.1.9 British Airways welcomed the eventual decision by HAL to invoke the Scarce Capacity Protocol (SCP) that is designed to ensure that all airlines were given fair and proportionate access to the take off and landing slots. However, the SCP is overly conservative and difficult to enforce. There were issues around policing SCP during this period, and we would encourage the introduction of measures to ensure compliance with SCP by all airlines in times of anticipated or actual disruption.

2.1.10 British Airways is currently contributing to the BAA’s independent review of Heathrow’s performance in December, led by Professor David Beg. We are also working with HAL to ensure that the recent problems and failures are fully understood and to share experiences to ensure that the issues specific to this incident do not arise again. Other airlines are also participating in the review.

2.2. Gatwick Airport

 

2.2.1 Gatwick was severely affected by a heavy snowfall that closed the airport at 2130 on 30 November and resulted in the prolonged closure of the airport for two days. The snow was particularly intense, with more than a foot falling on 1 and 2 December, and unprecedented in its severity.

2.2.2 An estimated 150,000 tonnes of snow was cleared from the operational areas. However, the clearance of aircraft parking stands and de-icing that was necessary on 3 December caused further cancellations, especially to our shorthaul schedule.

2.2.3 British Airways’ experience at Gatwick has been one of continual improvement. The handling of the first significant weather problems for the new owners of Gatwick, Global Infrastructure Partners (GIP), in December 2009 was poor but this improved for the snow disruption in January and February 2010.

2.2.4 Since then, GIP has invested significantly in new equipment and arrangements with local companies, for example using outside contractors’ trucks to remove snow from the airfield. This enabled the apron, parking stands and taxiways to be cleared and operational more quickly and for aircraft to be manoeuvred.

2.2.5 British Airways believes GIP’s management team at Gatwick is keen to learn from each experience. Although the new equipment was in place for the 30 November snow closure, some of the processes did not work as well as they could have done. However an immediate review meant that by 18/19 December, the airport responded effectively and in a timely manner to minimise disruption for its airline and passenger customers.

2.2.6 Importantly, Gatwick considers all aspects of the airfield as equally important, not just the runway but also the aprons, taxiways and stands. It also recognises the importance of ensuring surface access by road and rail is possible, both for airport staff and customers. There is no benefit to opening the airport if passengers cannot travel to or from it.

2.2.7 There was close co-operation with airlines and a very positive approach to involving others e.g. Gatwick has trained British Airways staff to drive its snow-clearing tractors, enabling more people to work on preparing the airport for re-opening. The airport has open and extensive communication and consultation with airlines, which led to a co-ordinated response by both sides during the later disruption period. The centralised command process improved on 18/19 December, and the ‘snow cell’ ensured the airport returned to normal operations more quickly than it had previously. It is worth noting that the ‘snow cell’ was activated prior to the first snow falling on 18 December.

2.2.8 The differences between Gatwick and Heathrow airports should be understood before any comparison is attempted. For example, there is a greater surface area available to dump snow cleared from the airfield at Gatwick than there is at Heathrow, and considerably fewer parking stand areas to manage. It has a single runway, not two, and fewer taxiways. Heathrow has four main terminal areas, rather than two, one of which is located across a runway from the main area, and another is separated by taxiways. Most importantly, Heathrow operates at maximum capacity throughout each operating day.

2.3. London City Airport

 

2.3.1 London City Airport closed for periods on 30 November and 1 December. On 30 November, we were unable to operate more than 3 flights at the airport because of the poor weather, and inbound aircraft had to divert to Gatwick Airport. On 1 December, despite light snow and reduced flow rates for arriving and departing aircraft, we managed to operate 30 flights, out of a planned 52. The airport was further impacted with sporadic weather issues throughout December but none were as severe as 30 November.

2.3.2 London City’s management team reviewed the February 2010 disruption and was well prepared for the weather problems it has encountered this winter, including freezing fog. Snow clearance was quick and efficient and undertaken by new equipment. Fog brings other challenges to the operation of the airport and for airlines, about which little can be done. The airfield is designated Category 1 for low visibility conditions, and the restricted landing minima and proximity to large infrastructure on approach and take off mean unique issues and restrictions.

2.3.3 The airport team planned ahead, and brought in additional resources to help keep the airfield operational. Extra staff were used, and although the airport is normally closed at night, snow-clearing teams worked through the nights to ensure the runway, taxiway and aprons were as clear and usable as possible.

2.4 British Airways

 

2.4.1 British Airways and its customers were affected by adverse weather conditions throughout December, but especially so on 1-2 and 18-24 December. It was a particularly bad month - we had to deal with the impact of poor weather across our network on 20 of the 31 days in the month. Despite the circumstances being beyond our control, we recognise the inconvenience the disruption caused particularly at that time of year, and apologise to our customers who were affected.

2.4.2 Thirty-eight British Airways longhaul flights inbound to London were diverted to airports throughout the UK and Europe over the weekend of 18/19 December. The aircraft were en-route to London when the airports closed. Many more inbound flights were cancelled, and thousands of customers were held at their embarkation airports overseas because of lack of onward connections at Heathrow. This helped alleviate the problem at the airport, and ensured that customers would not be stranded in London.

2.4.3 Many customers were re-routed via other airports and on other carriers. For example, customers in Scotland and the north of England were re-routed onto direct flights from the UK regions to the USA and the Middle East operated by competitor airlines. British Airways has commercial agreements with these companies and these are activated in times of disruption to the benefit of our customers, and at a cost to our business.

2.4.4 There were very limited opportunities to coach domestic customers between UK airports because of prevailing weather difficulties and uncertain road conditions, and an understandable reluctance of coach companies to commit to such an operation.

2.4.5 Throughout the disruption periods, British Airways activated its customer support programme of volunteers from across all areas of the business. Hundreds of additional shifts were filled, and volunteers worked in the airport terminals and in the ‘disruption centre’, answering telephone calls, rebooking customers or processing refunds, and providing general information to customers.

3. WEATHER FORECASTING

3.1. The adverse weather conditions in the South East of England for 18 December were forecast accurately in advance of the arrival of the snow.

3.2 Normally, the challenge is dealing with the variation in weather forecasts – common data are collected and run through different computer modelling systems in the US and in the EU. The models are run four times daily, and the outputs are often in conflict. The difficulty lies in the actual temperature on the day, which define whether precipitation will fall as snow or rain.

3.3 On 18 December, both models forecast heavy snow. As well as using the UK Meteorological Office (MO) data, British Airways has a commercial contract with WSI, a US Based company that provides satellite, radar and forecasting services. This is also used by National Air Traffic Services (NATS).

3.4 British Airways senior operations management team had an extensive discussion with the MO before its decision to cancel flights was taken at 0730. The official MO forecaster predicted exactly when the snowstorm would begin and the intensity and volume that would fall. This information was available to all parties involved in the operation of the airport, but we cannot comment on how it was used by others. Furthermore, live radar is available for weather in the Heathrow area that clearly shows what can be expected from any given direction.

3.5 It is worth noting that neither Heathrow nor Gatwick – nor any UK civilian airfield - have a dedicated forecasting service based on site. This is something British Airways believes should be considered and would add real value in minimising customer disruption.

4. QUARMBY REVIEW RECOMENDATIONS

4.1 British Airways ensured it has sufficient supplies of de-icing and anti-icing fluid available at all times. We used up to 100,000 litres of fluid on several days, but we always had extensive stock holdings at Heathrow and Gatwick in reserve.

4.2 British Airways, in co-operation with HAL and NATS can establish at very short notice a temporary remote de-icing facility that was first used in February 2010 to de-ice aircraft. This enables aircraft to move from parking stands to a remote area close to Terminal 5, where they are de-iced by specialist teams operating four de-icing rigs before proceeding to the runways for departure. This releases parking stands for arriving aircraft, aids the flows of aircraft and customers considerably, and reduces delays for all.

4.3 Contingency planning is a key component in any airline’s operating plan, and British Airways continues to update its business continuity plan following every period of disruption or incident. We welcome the recognition by the Quarmby Final Review point 9.29 that the "aviation sector in the UK anticipates and manages the effects of severe winter weather to a very high standard of resilience and has in place the processes and disciplines that enable lessons to be learnt from one winter and adopted for subsequent seasons."

4.4 The Final Quarmby Review recommended (Recommendation 22) "that the Civil Aviation Authority considers how it might develop its currently published data to improve the presentation, commentary and interpretation of airline performance information….". British Airways believes that before this can happen, extensive explanations of the myriad different conditions and restrictions of each airport must be explained before any meaningful interpretation can be made. As highlighted above, the operational differences between Gatwick, London City and Heathrow are very significant, and each airport has a major bearing on the performance of airlines using them.

4.5 Airlines also differ widely in what they offer and how they operate – e.g. longhaul and shorthaul flying, route structure, point-to-point direct customers, transfer and hub operations, baggage, cargo, charter, scheduled etc. All of these and more must be taken into account before accurate interpretations can be made.

5. SUMMARY

5.1 The adverse winter weather conditions that affected the South East of England in December 2010 were particularly severe. The snowfall at Heathrow Airport on 18 December was exceptional in its volume and intensity and was a unique occurrence because of this. Gatwick also suffered an unusually high volume of snow earlier in the month, resulting in closure.

5.2 The problems at Heathrow were compounded by the lack of spare or contingency capacity at the airport. It operates to its maximum all day every day.

5.2 Road, rail and air travel were badly affected. The aviation industry in the UK will review and learn lessons from the December 2010 disruption. British Airways believes it can contribute meaningfully to the review of the recovery to full operational status at Heathrow in December 2010 now underway. We look forward to working with all parties to ensure that robust, effective and safe resilience and contingency plans are soon in place.

February 2011