In a comment piece in today’s Times newspaper, BAA’s Colin Matthews has rebutted the accusations made against BAA and its handling of the December snow crisis at Heathrow in what he says is a more balanced account of what occurred. Here are some excerpts.
On Virgin’s announcement yesterday that it is withholding fee payments to BAA:
For our planning to be effective, it must be completed collaboratively with airlines. Yesterday’s announcement that Virgin Atlantic plans to stop paying its airport charges is disappointing. Leaving aside the fact that Virgin has no legal basis for taking this action, I know that passengers’ interests are better served by good relations and partnership between airports and airlines and our enquiry will expose precisely what happened.
On claims Heathrow ran out of de-icing fluid:
Heathrow did not run out of de-icer. We secured additional deliveries, in the face of record consumption across Europe.
On the lack of investment in winter preparedness:
Funding for snow clearing equipment this year was not restricted by either BAA or its shareholders. Faced with more snow than we have seen in decades, the snow plan we agreed with airlines earlier in the year was found to be insufficient. So I have made a further £10 million available for new equipment, including snow-ploughs, blowers and tractors, and the people needed to operate them.
On BAA’s refusal to accept help from the army to clear the snow and ice:
We did not decline any offer of help which would have helped speed up the process of opening a runway. In fact, we brought in more people and equipment prior to Saturday 18th and throughout the rest of the week to aid with the snow clearance operations. The offer of soldiers was a generous one on the part of the Government, but it was made after the snow was cleared.
On how Heathrow dealt with stranded passengers:
Never before has Heathrow Airport provided accommodation, food, people and telephones and computers to help with re-bookings. We asked every office-based employee to put aside the normal job and get into the terminals to help get passengers moving. However, it took time to establish those resources and I deeply regret that too many passengers spent uncomfortable nights in Heathrow’s terminals.
The enquiry will certainly examine the support offered to stranded passengers, how we minimise the number of people coming to terminals for flights which do not depart, and how we give passengers reliable information in fast changing circumstances. It will also examine the plans needed to cope with the level of snowfall experienced on Saturday 18th December, the like of which Heathrow has not faced before.
On closing the runway:
On Saturday 18th, Heathrow was closed by around twice as much snow as our planning had anticipated, in a little more than an hour. Then the temperature dropped suddenly, freezing that snow on parking stands.
The Northern runway was available to use within two hours – and we could have declared Heathrow technically open. However, that would have been misleading as without useable parking stands, aircraft could not have departed or arrived. It goes without saying that BAA, the airlines and all who operate at Heathrow place the utmost priority on safety.
Faced with more snow than we have previously experienced, our main challenge was to clear aircraft stands of snow and ice. New York’s major airports faced similar problems only a few days later and it took other airports a similar period of time to recover, demonstrating the severity of the winter across the US and Europe and a common set of challenges at busy international airports.
He goes on to say:
We can always do better, and we need to be and will be better prepared, but these were circumstances that would have tested any airport managers, anywhere in the world.
In December, reports suggest that Amsterdam, Brussels, Copenhagen, Dublin, Frankfurt, Gatwick, Geneva, JFK, La Guardia, Newark, Paris and several others were either closed or disrupted for a period because of the weather.
Uniquely among these airports, Heathrow is completely full. It operates at maximum capacity, every day of the year meaning that it takes us and the airlines longer to re-establish normal operations and repatriate stranded passengers after any disruption, whether caused by snow, ice, fog or wind.
The lessons learned over Christmas are being driven into improvement plans for Heathrow. That is the job of my team based here in the UK and passengers, airlines and policy makers will judge our success.
Our owners also hold us to account for improving Heathrow. In the four years they have owned Heathrow, our shareholders have invested close to £1 billion each year, and continue to do so. There can be few private investors who, faced with the credit crunch, can match that record of investment, a tangible commitment to a vital UK asset.
An external enquiry launched before Christmas will reveal what happened as a result of the snow at Heathrow on the 18th December. I, and everyone who works at the airport, am truly sorry for the thousands of disrupted journeys and spoilt holidays.
The enquiry will take some weeks to deliver its report, led by a team of aviation experts from parts of the world familiar with heavy snowfall. Meanwhile we are urgently reviewing the airport’s preparedness for difficult weather should it occur in the remaining months of this winter.
I am responsible for what happens at Heathrow Airport and my management team and I will act speedily on the conclusions and the recommendations of the enquiry.