Session 2010-11
Publications on the internet

Written evidence from Heathrow Airport (AWC 33)

1. Introduction and context

Throughout December 2010, there were periods of heavy snowfall across the UK. On Saturday 18th December, a blizzard hit the South-East of England, resulting in the heaviest snowfall some parts of the region had seen for thirty years.

The heavy snow across Britain presented a significant operational challenge for much of the UK's transport system and, during the week before Christmas, Heathrow Airport was among the worst affected.

This evidence sets out what preparations BAA made for winter weather, what happened at Heathrow on 18th December and the days following, and the steps we are taking to ensure Heathrow responds more effectively to periods of bad weather in the future.

Heathrow is one of the most capacity-constrained airports in the world, and it is clear that with no realistic prospect of new capacity - certainly in the next decade - the airport will be more vulnerable to weather and operational disruption than European and international competitors.

This means that BAA and Heathrow’s airlines will have to work collaboratively to design and operate within a new airport system that is more responsive to the needs of passengers and which is more resilient in the face of disruption, however that comes about.

Early advice from the Met Office suggests that while the UK can anticipate milder winters, it is prudent to expect and to plan for more extreme weather systems such as those experienced in December 2010.

In recent weeks, BAA has prepared an enhanced snow plan that envisages up to 25cm of snow and details how the airport would respond collectively to the many challenges such an event would pose. This new snow plan will be the subject of detailed consultation with airlines ground handling agents and other third parties with a direct interest in Heathrow’s swift recovery from disruption.

2. Winter resilience planning

There were three main plans that could assist with winter resilience at Heathrow:-

- Heathrow Airport Aerodrome Snow Plan

- Passenger Welfare Support Agreement

- Capacity Constraints Policy

Each of these is discussed in turn below.

2.1 Heathrow Airport Aerodrome Snow Plan

The Aerodrome Snow Plan for Heathrow Airport sets out the procedures for dealing with snow and ice at Heathrow. The plan is created and agreed with the airline community in advance of winter. Safety is and always should be the airport operator’s first priority in bad weather.

Broadly speaking, BAA is responsible for keeping the runways, taxiways and aircraft stands clear of snow and ice, and airlines are responsible for de-icing aircraft. In periods of prolonged snow, we encourage all airside companies (airlines, ground-handlers and service providers) to actively ‘self-help’ by clearing areas close to their operation – for example, footpaths and some part of aircraft parking areas (heads of stands) - using equipment provided by us.

The 2010/11 Snow Plan was discussed and agreed with the airline community several times during the Autumn of 2010. Specific briefings were held to ensure the airlines understood the processes BAA would follow, the elements for which they were directly responsible, and other areas where they, or their service providers, were encouraged to ‘self-help’.

The snow plan is explicit on operational capabilities during blizzard conditions, such as those experienced on Saturday 18 December:

"In blizzard conditions, it is likely that aircraft movements will be suspended for the duration of the blizzard event, and for a protracted period after the event, to allow adequate airfield and aircraft treatment. In the event of a significant snowfall in blizzard conditions, recovery will take significantly longer and aircraft operations may be suspended indefinitely. Serious disruption and cancellations affecting all carriers are likely after any period of blizzard conditions." 1

The snow plan is also explicit on stated prioritisation:

"The immediate aim is to keep the runway(s), associated exits and entry points for the runway(s) in use, designated taxiway routes, main passenger aprons and airside roads clear of snow. The runway(s) will be cleared first, with work on subsequent areas proceeding as required and agreed by the airline community, ideally and if possible, these should occur simultaneously." 2

The snow plan for Heathrow kept the airport open during periods of severe weather at the beginning and end of 2010.

2.2 Passenger Welfare Support Agreement

The welfare and well-being of passengers is always a primary concern during periods of travel disruption. The CAA, BAA and airlines had carried out work on passenger experience in October 2009, resulting in a voluntary agreement designed to support passenger welfare obligations during periods of disruption.

The Agreement recognised airlines’ legal responsibility for passenger welfare under EU regulations 3 :

- Meal voucher provision upon denial of boarding

- Rebooking and accommodation provision

Additional voluntary support would be provided by Heathrow Airport:

- Retail outlets to extend opening hours and increase stock levels when notified of welfare requirements by airlines

- Provision of limited emergency welfare stocks to cover sporadic gaps in airline provision

A two-tier contingency stock would be held, with immediate response provisions held by the terminals and bulk stock held off-site:

- Stock in terminal: bottled water, plastic chairs, foil blankets, rain ponchos

- Bulk stock: hats, wash bags, mattresses, woollen blankets, gloves, towels, umbrellas

This plan had adequately covered airline welfare gaps during snow periods in January 2010 and on 2 December 2010.

2.3 Capacity Constraints Policy

Heathrow Airport currently operates near to maximum capacity for significant parts of every day. When an event such as snow or fog or even high winds reduces the flow of aircraft in or out of Heathrow, the time required for the airport to recover can be significant.

We therefore have an agreed Capacity Constraints Policy, which has been agreed with the airlines. The policy was developed to respond to unforeseen events (i.e. emergency liquids ruling) and was not intended to apply constraints based on forecast events. While we had widely consulted on the Capacity Constraints Policy, it had never been used before December 2010.

The aim of the policy is to aid recovery from significant periods of disruption, whether that is adverse weather, a security threat or potential aircraft incident. In times of major operational stress, the policy states that the Capacity Constraints Group will be activated in consultation with airlines. Chaired by BAA, this group consists of representatives from all the major airlines, air traffic control (NATS) and the airport slot coordinator (ACL Ltd). Building on learning from previous events, the group will implement a pre-agreed process by which available airport capacity is assessed and flight schedules are adjusted to match accordingly.

The Capacity Constraints Group was activated on Sunday 19 December and met throughout the days that followed.

3. Overview of the challenges we faced during the snow

There were four main challenges for BAA during the recent snow:

- Operational stress prior to the snow falling

- A very heavy snow fall in a short period of time, followed by a sharp reduction in temperature

- Passenger communication and welfare provision

- Capacity constraints limiting recovery time

3.1 Operational stress prior to the snow falling

On Thursday 16th and Friday 17th December, snow was already affecting some parts of Western Europe, resulting in airport closures and disruption. At Heathrow, there had also been persistently very cold temperatures throughout the preceding week, allied to light snowfall on Friday 17th December. Both events had a consequent effect on Heathrow operations, with British Airways, Lufthansa and BMI amongst others cancelling a number of Heathrow flights on 16th and 17th December due to disruption elsewhere.

Specifically, on both 16th and 17th December British Airways experienced major problems with their de-icing operation. This resulted in a number of delayed or cancelled departures, which caused a shortfall in available stands for arriving BA aircraft and consequent delays for passengers to disembark. To help support their operational recovery, we had focused a significant amount of airside team resource on anti-icing and clearing stands at T5 during the evening and night of 16th and 17th December.

As a result of this and the disruption in Europe, we were already stretched operationally - both in terms of airfield congestion and airside team resource - before the snowfall on Saturday.

3.2 Very heavy snow fall in a short period of time followed by a sharp reduction in temperature

The Met Office reports that around 9cm of snow fell in just over an hour at Heathrow on Saturday 18 December. This is unusual. It is likely that this volume of snow falling in a short period of time would have closed any airport in the world (in fact, many did close during the same period). De-icer can be applied in advance but if more than 3cm of snow falls, runways, taxiways and aircraft stands have to be closed while the snow is physically cleared. 9cm of snow results in around 98,000 tonnes of snow having to be removed.

The situation at Heathrow on Saturday afternoon was complicated by the fact that the airfield was extremely congested, with a higher number of aircraft stands occupied than usual. This was a result of disruption at other airports – as outlined above - and the decision of some carriers to cancel a significant proportion of their scheduled flights in advance of the snow falling. A number of our airside team had worked through the night on Thursday and Friday to support BA operational recovery at T5. This meant they were unavailable to work on Saturday.

Matters were further complicated when the temperature dropped sharply overnight, deteriorating the quality of the snow and making it harder to clear. Each stand had to have a significant amount of snow cleared from it, many also had ice. This was an operation that became more problematic when the stand was occupied by an aircraft, as the majority were. Snow clearance became a delicate operation that took considerable time in order to avoid damaging the aircraft. The inconsistent formulation of ice across the stands also made it particularly difficult for us to accurately estimate clearance times.

Each of these factors made snow recovery a much more complicated matter than it normally would be.

3.3 Passenger communication and welfare provision

The closure of Heathrow Airport on Saturday 18 th December resulted in a large number of cancellations. One of our most significant challenges was to help the thousands of passengers whose flights had been cancelled. There were two main issues:

- how to help those people already at the airport

- how to communicate with people who were due to travel in the next 24/48 hours

3.3.1 Helping people already at the airport

Under EU regulations, airlines are obliged to provide assistance to passengers if their flights are cancelled. An alternative flight should be offered and, where necessary, the airline should provide assistance such as food, access to a telephone and hotel accommodation. If the alternative flight isn’t acceptable to the passenger a full ticket refund should be provided within seven days.

The majority of our carriers were very good at providing assistance to their passengers. However, some were not. The CAA has subsequently written to a number of airlines to remind them of their obligations to assist passengers during times of disruption.

The situation was complicated by the fact that the road network around Heathrow was closed by the Police due to safety concerns on Saturday afternoon. That limited the ability of passengers to travel back home or move to hotel accommodation. The rail network was also disrupted as a result of the adverse weather conditions. We understand that much of the hotel accommodation around Heathrow quickly became booked up, which further limited the ability of passengers to leave the terminal buildings.

Terminal buildings are designed for passengers to pass through, not as waiting areas or accommodation. As cancellations continued throughout the weekend, passengers experienced very difficult conditions as the terminals became very congested. While BAA stepped in to add support to airline welfare measures – including providing additional accommodation, food, people and assistance with rebookings – it took time to establish these resources. We are disappointed that many passengers spent uncomfortable nights in Heathow’s terminals.

3.3.2 Communicating with people due to travel

One of the most obvious challenges at Heathrow in the week before Christmas was how to provide reliable, accurate information to passengers in fast-changing circumstances and where several organisations were involved

Passengers who were due to travel Saturday evening, Sunday and beyond were understandably anxious to understand if their flight would operate. We increased our call centre resource by 600% on Saturday afternoon, posted regular website updates and began a 24/7 Twitter operation to answer passenger queries in real-time.

However, we were reliant upon airlines updating flight schedules in order to be able to provide an accurate picture of the schedule operating at Heathrow. While some airlines were very good at updating their schedules, others did not. This meant that there was a lack of accurate information we could provide to passengers throughout Saturday and Sunday.

This situation was compounded by the difficulties many passengers faced in contacting their airlines directly. Airline websites and call centres were under enormous pressure and we understand that many passengers could not contact their airlines to check whether their flight would operate or if/when they would be rebooked. As a result, thousands of people travelled to Heathrow without a confirmed flight. This complicated matters enormously and created a stressful and unpleasant experience for passengers. On Monday afternoon, at least two of our terminals became very congested.

We agreed a reduced schedule with airlines overnight on Monday 20th December. This allowed us to publish an agreed schedule at 4am on Tuesday morning. The schedule was placed on our website, announced via media statements and highlighted via Twitter. While passenger communication remained challenging, the formally reduced schedule meant passengers could access good quality information via our website, with which they could make rational decisions.

3.4 Capacity constraints

Any airport in the world can be closed down by several inches of snow in a period as short as an hour – Copenhagen, New York, Boston, Geneva, Paris, Dublin, Brussels, Amsterdam and Frankfurt were all forced to close, or faced severe disruption, due to heavy snow during the last two weeks of December 2010.

The key difference at Heathrow is capacity and the gap between arriving and departing aircraft – it is seconds rather than minutes. We have more than 1,300 flights a day, with an aircraft taking off or landing every 45 seconds. A less congested and less busy airport can close for a few hours with little impact. At Heathrow, the impact of even a short closure is dramatic.

Our two runways run at full capacity on a normal day. Other airports with spare runway capacity, such as Manchester in the UK and some Scandinavian airports, can operate a reduced schedule on one runway and can therefore close the other or others for whatever period is required to ensure the runway is safe. It is also true that airports with spare runway capacity have room to reschedule delayed flights when the affected runway(s) re-opens.

4. What lessons has BAA learnt?

Everyone who works at Heathrow is deeply disappointed by the events that followed the snow on 18 th December. At BAA, we are determined to better prepare the airport for poor weather, and other potentially disruptive events, and have taken a number of positive steps to ensure that Heathrow is more resilient in future:

· Our first priority has been to create a new, enhanced snow plan that anticipates a far greater volume of snow, and a faster recovery time, than the one developed by BAA and agreed by airlines in 2010.

· We are undertaking a thorough review of our general contingency planning plans and processes, and the command and control structure that governs those.

· BAA’s chief executive, Colin Matthews, made £10million of capital available with immediate effect for investment in additional winter resilience equipment and resources. We have already purchased several new vehicles, including snow-ploughs, blowers and tractors.

· We appointed Professor David Begg to lead an external panel of experts, who will collectively establish what happened at Heathrow, and the lessons to be learned to avoid similar disruption in future. The panel has a far-reaching brief to look at the planning, execution and recovery from the difficult weather conditions of December 2010. The panel, made up of international airport executives and airline representatives, is due to publish its report before the end of March 2011.

Both the internal and external enquiries are exploring the following issues:

- the support offered to stranded passengers

- how to minimise the number of passengers arriving for flights that do not depart

- how to give reliable information in fast-changing circumstances

It is clear that as the UK’s only hub airport, Heathrow’s operation is critical, both to the economy and to people travelling for personal reasons. We are working with the airlines to develop a new snow plan which will deliver a risk-based approach to snow clearing. We have eight workstreams which are looking at the following areas:

- command and control

- capacity management

- communications

- airside response

- terminal response

- baggage response

- landside response

- welfare and volunteers

Our aim is to develop a coordinated response that can be delivered across the airport in collaboration with the airlines. We will use the findings of both the internal and external reviews to inform and enhance our operational planning for snow.

February 2011

[1] Snow Plan 2010/11, Appendix G, Operational Capabilities, Paragraph 4

[2] Snow Plan 2010/11, Chapter 4, Paragraph 15

[3] European Commission Regulation 261/2004: Common rules on compensation and assistance to passengers by airlines in the event of denied boarding and of cancellation or long delay of flights