Session 2010-11
Publications on the internet

1

Written evidence from the Manchester Airports Group (AWC 07)

1. INTRODUCTION & EXECUTIVE SUMMARY

1.1 This is the submission of the Manchester Airports Group plc (MAG) to the Call for Written Evidence issued by the House of Commons Transport Committee in connection with its inquiry into the impact on transport of the recent adverse weather conditions.

1.2 MAG is the UK's second largest airport operator and comprises the airports of Manchester, East Midlands, Humberside and Bournemouth. MAG handled nearly 24 million passengers in 2009-10, with Manchester alone accounting for over 18 million passengers travelling to around 200 destinations.

1.3 MAG is publicly owned by the ten local authorities of Greater Manchester. These shareholders require us to grow the business profitably, to enhance the value of the business; and to maximise the economic and social contribution to the regions it serves.

1.4 The main points of this submission are as follows :

(i) Manchester Airport and the MAG-owned East Midlands Airport both coped well in the snow crisis of 19/20 December and maintained operations throughout the period. A number of diversion flights were accepted from other airports.

(ii) There was some disruption to air traffic arising from the closure of destination airports and the fact that aircraft were often ‘out-of sequence’ due to disruption elsewhere and therefore not available to fly planned services from our airports.

(iii) Generally, stranded passengers at our airports were treated well and there were no disputes about passengers’ entitlements under the relevant legislation in respect of denied boarding and delays. There were, however, considerable practical difficulties arising from the fact that airlines and their handling agents seemed ill-prepared to cope with the various passenger requirements in the form of booking alternative flights, providing onward transport and hotel accommodation.

(iv) In respect of operations by MAG, the lessons learnt from the previous winter’s experience (which we put to the Quarmby Review), were put into practice and acted on, and contributed to our success in dealing with this winter’s challenges.

2. Winter operations at Manchester Airport in 2010

 

2.1 Manchester Airport experienced snowfall on several occasions between late November and Christmas. Snow clearance teams were called in when snow was forecast and were deployed once inclement weather reached Manchester in accordance with the Manchester Airport Winter Operations Plan.

2.2 The Airport was able to remain open continuously during November/December, although on several occasions runway operations were suspended, for up to two hours, to permit snow clearance/anti-ice treatment to be undertaken. This is normal and necessary.

2.3 Over the period 17-22 December there was considerable disruption to flights to/from Southern/Eastern England and parts of Europe (France, Germany, Netherlands, Belgium and Ireland). Numerous flights to UK and European destinations were cancelled or delayed by the weather at destination airports.

2.4 Manchester was willing to accept diverted flights provided that the core operation would not be significantly compromised. i.e:

· There was space on the airfield to accommodate additional aircraft (airport stand capacity was reduced due to the impact of snow and some areas needing to being set aside for "snow dumps").

· There was terminal capacity to handle flights (inbound and outbound).

· There was sufficient Airport Security and Control Authority resources to handle the additional outbound traffic.

· The airline’s handling agent(s) were willing and able to facilitate handling of the additional flights (including making arrangements for onward road transportation or hotel accommodation).

2.5 Manchester Airport made use of the following:

· SMS "Call Informer" text messaging to keep airlines, handling agents, and service partners updated.

· Updates on the Manchester Airport Website.

· Updates to media and the public via the Press Office, including social media

· Additional staff deployed to assist customers with enquiries and to handle additional flights through the security process.

· Provision of additional temporary seating for delayed customers.

· A management call-out roster for Christmas week in case disruption persisted.

2.6 Following the previous year’s difficult winter, Manchester Airport took steps to substantially improve our ability to respond to adverse winter weather conditions. We informed the Quarmby Review of these steps, which included :

· MA invested in new and additional snow clearing equipment, particularly small snow sweepers capable of clearing areas underneath aircraft on stand. We intend to purchase a significant amount of new equipment later this year.

· Storage areas for both road salt and anti-icing materials were doubled in size and increased supplies obtained.

· Improvements were made to procurement processes so that greater security of supply could be assured.

· Improvements were made to both our crisis management systems, resourcing plans and to media networks to keep passengers and airlines informed.

· Changes were made to the weather forecasting information obtained so that more accurate forecasts allowed us to predict and react to local weather conditions.

3. ISSUES ARISING DURING THIS YEAR’S OPERATIONS

3.1 The Handling Agents (contracted by the airlines to handle their ground operations) struggled to assist the volumes of passengers unable to catch their intended flights from Manchester. This resulted in lengthy queues of passengers awaiting rebooking at ticket desks within the terminals. Although there were no problems regarding passengers entitlements under denied or delayed boarding legislation, there were considerable practical difficulties that arose. Hotels quickly became full and some passengers chose to remain within the airport buildings in order to ensure they were "first in line" the following morning.

3.2 The strain on handling agents was compounded by additional traffic diverting to Manchester when other Airports (in particular Heathrow and Gatwick) closed due to weather conditions.

3.3 It would appear that, despite poor weather being forecast, few airlines had instructed their handling agents to put in place contingency plans or roster additional staff to cope with the anticipated increased workload.

3.4 A shortage of local hotel accommodation and coaches to transport diverted passengers down to London became a critical issue on the weekend of 18/19 December. Coach operators were unwilling or unable to transport passengers to London – due to a combination of high demand, treacherous driving conditions and road congestion. (It in understood that some passengers had to be coached as far away as Blackpool).

3.5 On 18th December passengers were held on board long-haul flights diverted into Manchester for a number of hours whilst airlines decided whether to terminate flights or to try and fly into London if/when the airports re-opened. When the decisions were eventually made to terminate flights there were difficulties sourcing onward transport and/or hotel accommodation.

3.6 Communication to passengers held on diverted aircraft at Manchester was sometimes misleading leading to increased dissatisfaction for the passengers held onboard.

3.7 As a result of issues encountered on 18 December, and in order to protect the integrity of the core operation, the airport took steps to ensure that the airlines/handling agents for all diverted flights had to provide assurances that they were in a position to handle the flights satisfactorily before diversion acceptance was granted. Diversion requests were considered on a case-by-case basis.

3.8 Significant volumes of hold baggage failed to arrive into Manchester Airport on delayed flights from major hubs such as Heathrow, Paris CDG, Brussels, Frankfurt and Amsterdam. The impact of this was felt through into the New Year with large volumes of baggage being forwarded and requiring sorting and delivering to passengers. Airlines/handling agents appeared under-prepared to cope with the upsurge in baggage being mishandled and calls being made by customers seeking information.

4. LEARNING/ACTION POINTS ARISING FROM THE EXPERIENCE OF MANCHESTER AIRPORT

4.1 Enhanced contingency planning is required between the airlines and their handling agents to cope with weather disruption (e.g. handling delayed/cancelled flights and additional diverted traffic).

4.2 Improved communication is required between airlines and their handling agents to establish what diverted traffic can be handled to a satisfactory standard (this includes taking account of road transport and/or hotel accommodation availability.) This information should then be shared with airport operational staff.

4.3 Better adherence to Manchester Airport’s Diversion Procedures is required by airlines/handling agents – particularly in terms of following correct communication channels. We, in turn will review/refine our Diversion Procedures to improve clarity and emphasise the above points.

4.4 In future weather disruption situations, we intend to issue a daily operational update report, outlining the airport’s resource plans, availability of equipment and supplies, and to include the current position of Airlines, service partners and Control Authorities to handle the flight schedule changes.

4.5 Airlines (and their handling agents/baggage enquiry call handling centres) need to develop robust plans for dealing with significant volumes delayed/mislaid luggage, which is invariably a consequence of weather disruption at large airports.

5. MAG COMMENTS ON OTHER PROPOSALS FOR DEALING WITH ADVERSE WINTER CONDITIONS AT AIRPORTS

5.1 We do not support the proposal that snow clearance equipment from airports less affected by snow should be capable of being ‘commandeered’ or directed by Government to serve airports more severely affected. We oppose this for the following reasons :

· Weather in the UK typically affects many airports at the same time. Over the weekend of 19-21 December, all UK airports were affected by snow. If one airport is affected lightly on one day, for example, it is possibly that it may experience heavy snowfall the following day and require rapid recall of the equipment. The task of prioritising requests would be cumbersome and inevitably inaccurate and could neither cope with any situation where all major airports were affected or where constantly changing weather patterns rapidly changed which airports were affected worst.

· The task of transferring snow clearance equipment many miles would be difficult, requiring many low loaders (such equipment cannot travel along public highways under its own power). A stock of low loaders for this purpose would have to be obtained by individual airports. Road conditions on the approaches to badly affected airports would be difficult and the arrival of the equipment might be delayed.

· The possibility of ‘borrowing’ such equipment from well-provisioned airports might encourage others to under-invest in same. Such equipment is costly and yet is only used on a few occasions each year. Those airports who do adequately resource in terms of equipment would see such intervention as a penalty for good business decisions; conversely the inefficient and imprudent would be apparently rewarded.

· Problems would inevitably arise over the appropriate level of recharges for the loan of such equipment.

· A number of practical considerations would further limit the use of one airport’s equipment at another, including :

o The base frequencies of the equipment not being set to the same frequencies of the ‘receiving’ airport.

o Who would be responsible for providing the staff needed to operate the equipment ? If it were the receiving airport, their staff might not be familiar/trained to operate the equipment. If it was the ’donating’ airport, this would raise significant safety concerns re familiarity with the layout of the receiving airport, their processes and procedures. This would be a major consideration during periods of low visibility (which tend to occur during snow events).

o Insurance requirements would cause complications and possibly delays.

5.2 MAG would not support the similar suggestion of sharing stocks of anti-icing or road clearance materials. We are however, more supportive of central government creating and holding strategic stockpiles of such material, to be allocated on a prioritisation basis during any such emergency.

5.3 We think it unnecessary that additional conditions be imposed on airports on any size under the proposed reforms to the system of airport economic regulation. Any sanctions imposed under such regime could only meaningfully take the form of financial penalties. Airports do not need such ‘incentives’ imposed on them: the loss of income and additional costs imposed through times of closure are significant in themselves (Manchester Airport lost some £1.4M in terms of increased costs and reduced incomes even though it coped well with the snow crisis). It also presumes that airport operators, and their inability to deal with adverse weather conditions, are the parties responsible for delays arising. As we have indicated above, our experience has shown that the actions or inactions or others involved in the aviation supply chain, can also be responsible.

5.4 We are mindful of the suggestions for European action on this matter. Bearing in mind our comments made above, in relation to other parties, we would support any move to strengthen the powers of airports to insist on minimum service standards being delivered to passengers by both airlines and their appointed handling agents. This would require amendment to the 1997 EU Ground Handling Directive.

5.5 Currently, the EU public procurement processes apply to airports, regardless of ownership and competitive position. The processes impose additional time on the procurement processes which, when combined with the typical manufacturing time for snow clearing equipment, means that the arrival date of such equipment sought soon after one severe winter is highly unlikely to be in time for the following year’s winter. MAG would urge the Government to argue the case in Brussels for airports (or at least airports subject to effective competition – as is the situation in most of the UK) to be exempt from the requirements of the public procurement Directive.

February 2011