Session 2010-11
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Written evidence from Flybe (AWC 08)

Flybe welcomes the opportunity to submit a response to the Transport Select Committee inquiry into the Impact of Adverse Weather on Transport in the UK and the four key areas outlined below:

· Impacts the road and rail networks in England and Wales

· Impact 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

· The recommendations of the Quarmby reviews into the resilience of England’s transport systems in 2010.

Of these four areas to be investigated, we will restrict our comments to the impact on the UK’s airports, including the extent to which lessons were learnt from winter 2009-10.

Introduction to Flybe

1. Headquartered in Exeter, Flybe is Europe’s largest regional airline and the UK’s number one domestic airline. Employing nearly 3,000 staff, we currently operate 68 aircraft on 215 routes from 39 UK and 34 European airports in 13 countries and carried more than 7 million passengers in 2010. The airline began life in 1979 as Jersey European Airways, later renamed British European in 2000 and was then re-launched as Flybe in July 2002.

2. Flybe has established a regional route network and spread of airports is intended to offer customers a convenient point-to-point network operating from regional airports which we believe are a preferable alternative to having to travel to more distant major hub airports. In addition, the domestic route network is structured with the aim of minimising the competitive threat from alternative forms of surface transport (alternative road or rail options give journey time of four hours or less.) Not only is the average flight time of a Flybe flight less than one hour, our route network attracts passengers in locations which are more dependent on air transport such as Northern Ireland and other locations where surface transport may be a less attractive option, such as Inverness, Newquay and Aberdeen.

3. Flybe focuses its route selection on higher passenger volume regional routes that require high frequency services. However, it also operates regional routes with low-to-medium passenger volumes (typically, those with the passenger volumes of less than 50,000 per annum), including a number of single daily rotations.

4. Since October 2008 Flybe has also operated a franchise arrangement with the Scottish airline Loganair, under which 16 Loganair aircraft fly using the Flybe brand across 28 franchise routes between 18 airports throughout the UK.

5. Because we operate from significantly more UK airports than any other airline, we feel particularly able to offer comment and comparison following December’s disruption.

Impact on flights of December’s bad weather

6. During the month of December 2010, Flybe had scheduled to operate more that 12,000 flights but, due to airport closures resulting from the poor weather conditions we cancelled 1,980 or 16% of our programme, disrupting more than 100,000 passengers. The financial impact caused by the weather disruption to the company was a minimum of £6m. In comparison, during December 2009 we suffered just 273 cancellations.

Airports

7. There are a number of points we would wish to make that are applicable to all airports.

8. The first was the lack of a robust plan for handling severe weather disruption. If airports are requested to prepare such weather disruption plans, they need to be prepared in consultation with airlines and handling agents rather than in a vacuum. There are too many examples around the UK where this hasn’t happen.

9. A second problem was where airports declared themselves ‘open’, when in fact only the runway was operational. While other important areas such as aircraft stands and passenger walkways have not been cleared of snow and ice and therefore are un-accessible, in practical terms the airport is closed. This obviously leaves passengers frustrated when they arrive at an ‘open’ airport that is evidently not operational and where significant delays lead to cancellations. Flybe would respectfully suggest this as a key area for the Committee’s deliberations.

10. Thirdly, the area around the aircraft needs to be safe before the preparation for departure can begin. Tasks including; aircraft cleaning, toilets pumped out, catering and luggage loaded, refuelling and line engineer inspections all have to be completed before passengers can board and the aircraft is de-iced and pushed back ready for take-off. To assist in the aircraft preparation for departure, better storage areas (preferably covered) for aircraft service vehicles, in particular toilet/water trucks would be a major step forward, as there were a number of occasions when the vehicles themselves froze and could not be used, thus causing further delays.

11. Over the past few years, there has been a significant change in ownership of a number of UK airports, often for very substantial amounts of money. These new owners are under pressure to provide a return for their investment which, at a time of recession, is an increasingly challenging requirement. They bring a new model of ownership to the market – one that could be described as less attuned to the needs of the communities they purport to serve – and there is concern within the industry that this has led to an under-investment in equipment that could provide European levels of service in times of bad weather.

12. We are happy to expand upon this theme at any verbal session.

Overcrowding in the Terminal

13. When flight departures are suspended the flow of passenger also stops and the number of people in the terminals increases. To help overcome this shortage of space we would suggest a temporary change of use. Most airports have a larger airside (post security) area than landside and when severe delays occur, passenger facilities landside quickly become overstretched. One suggestion to help better manage the situation would be the declassification of some or all of the airside facilities to improve the passenger experience.

Geographically Competing Airports

14. Competitive advantage, rather than passenger prioritisation unfortunately came into play between airports within a driveable proximity. In at least one example, a British airport, despite being inoperable, would not declare themselves closed if a nearby rival was open. Such actions do not paint the industry in a good light.

Diversionary Airports

15. As airports close, airlines will seek to divert to an alternative which is still operational. This enables airlines to meet their duty of care and transport there passengers to their original destination – usually by road – rather than return to their original airport from mid-air or not take off in the first place.

16. Such diversionary airports soon become congested which in turn creates additional pressures on their limited facilities. One particular airport in the north of England took a number of Flybe diversions one evening due to a near neighbour being closed due to the snow. Having diverted aircraft to this airport, our passengers were able to complete their journey by surface transport. However, they then advised us that they would not be de-icing our diversionary aircraft the next day as their de-ice fluid stocks were low and that they were saving the fluid for their other, scheduled commercial flights. Flybe therefore had five aircraft stranded until the following afternoon whilst the airport awaited their next delivery of de-icing fluid. In future, we are less likely to divert to that airport for fear our aircraft will be marooned. This will inevitably mean more disruption and delay.

De Icing Fluid

17. Supplies of de-icing fluid became very short as the freezing weather continued and airports found it difficult to get their stocks replenished. We would recommend that the Committee focus on a national strategy for the distribution of de-icing fluid as has more recently happened on the provision of gritting salt for the road network.

Communications

18. In the case of industrial action, airlines receive advance warning of impending disruption to our operation. Whilst undesirable, it does at least mean we are able to re arrange our day’s operation and informing passengers of their revised travel plans, prior to their departure for the airport. We also give them the option of changing their travel arrangements to another day or receiving a full refund.

19. As soon as our operations are disrupted and we have to cancel flights we immediately contact the passengers and post the information on our website. Having clear information to share with our passengers was very difficult during this period of a number of reasons, namely the flow of information from airport operators when their airfields were open or closed; not knowing how many flights could be handled per hour, weather conditions improving or deteriorating at the departure or arrival airports coupled with de-icing regimes and the standard issues related to departure procedures.

Impacts the road and rail networks in England and Wales

20. Flybe’s staff, as well as our passengers, had difficulties getting to work due to the icy road conditions. As a result the airline accommodated flight deck cabin crew and other key members of staff in airport hotels to ensure their availability to operate aircraft the following day. At a local level, staff with four wheel drive vehicles were used to ferry other staff members to work who would have been unable to reach the airport by any other means. The disruption caused by volcanic ash crisis earlier last year showed the importance of aviation to the country’s economy and how crucial aviation is in the movement of goods and people. The snow merely brought this home to the travelling public and Flybe strongly recommends that access to airports by road and rail are given as high a priority as any other form of public transport.

In conclusion

21. Flybe would like to see closer working relationship between airports and their customers, airlines and handling agents in pre planning for major weather disruption. There should also include an industry agreement of what "open" means for an airport to manage the passengers’ expectations for travel. Airlines need as much notice as possible to re schedule their flying programmes to accommodate any reduction in aircraft movements. They then need to inform all passengers that will be impacted by these changes. Due to the prolonged period of bad weather many passengers experienced multiple changes to their travel plans.

22. We would like the Committee to consider relationships airports have with one another during periods of major disruption to encourage best practice towards airlines and thence to the travelling public to facilitate the end to end journey. On the wider issue of the condition of the road and rail network they need to be accessible to support general travel needs of the individual but keep delivery of vital supplies and goods to market. Flybe accepts that in the initial period of heavy snow services will be suspended but it is the speed of recovery that is most important and to achieve this all agencies need to work together.

February 2011