Passengers both sides of the Atlantic are still seething following the heavy air travel disruption over the holiday period caused by adverse weather. No sooner had Europe ploughed its way out of the snow, the Eastern U.S. was blasted with wintery conditions that forced runways to close and left hundreds of thousands of passengers stranded.
In the U.K, BAA, the owner-operator of London’s Heathrow airport, having been backed into a corner by politicians and passenger rights groups, has launched an inquiry into its handling of the chaos, led by BAA non-executive director Professor David Begg.
Professor Begg, who has already stated that he is “surprised” at the “accusation” that BAA didn’t invest enough into snow-clearing equipment, says the inquiry will examine how much snow fell, what the airport’s plans were and how well those plans were executed.
The big question though, is what will BAA do to appease its airlines?
BAA earns £1billion in landing and parking fees from the 90 airlines that operate at Heathrow, yet it spent just £500,000 on winter resilience equipment last year. Of those 90 airlines, British Airways is the largest. It recently announced the cost of last month’s snow disruption will be in the region of £50 million.
The second largest long-haul carrier at Heathrow, Virgin Atlantic, is in the mood for a public spat. It says the disruption has cost it £10 million and has now written to BAA to say it’s not paying its landing and parking fees until the results of the inquiry are published. It is also considering legal action.
If BAA wanted to get nasty, it could seize Virgin’s aircraft for non-payment of fees. That’s unlikely to happen however. BAA now has competition over at Gatwick so it wouldn’t do itself any favours upsetting Richard Branson’s flagship apple cart any further.
When the Begg inquiry is concluded and published in March, BAA might say it accepts the results of the inquiry and that it could have done better. Virgin Atlantic will be legally forced to pay its landing fees and the other airlines and their shareholders will just have to suck it up and keep their fingers crossed that BAA pulls its finger out the next time the snow falls.
Perhaps then, the only sensible way forward here is for the EC to step in and introduce a regulation on airports (as threatened by the commissioner last month). If the airports are unable to provide minimum service to airlines and their passengers, there should be a right to reasonable compensation (or a reduction in fees) for the airlines. Airlines shouldn’t have to foot the bill for the airport operators mishandling of events and passengers shouldn’t have to endure further chaos whilst the industry argues amongst itself.