Just three inches of snow halts half of all flights at Heathrow

6 Feb

Heathrow Airport faced questions last night as to why half of all flights were cancelled hours after it stopped snowing.

BAA, the Spanish-owned airport operator, incurred the wrath of passengers after 600 flights were grounded at Heathrow despite just three inches of snowfall, disrupting the plans of as many as 18,000 travellers.

The disruption was in stark contrast to airports across Europe where, despite record low temperatures, flights took off as normal.

In Germany, no airport had to shut even though Munich saw temperatures plunge to -27C. In Stockholm only six of 350 flights were cancelled. Copenhagen had four inches of snow but no disruption.

In contrast, by Saturday afternoon BAA had already cancelled a third of flights nine hours before any snow had fallen in a pre-emptive plan to avoid the chaos of previous winters.


Yet even as the snow began to melt from 6am yesterday and passengers reported clear runways, more than half of flights remained grounded.

It comes less than 14 months after the airport was crippled for five days because there were not enough snow clearance vehicles to keep runways open.

Despite an inquiry and promises by BAA that it had increased its snowplough fleet by 68 to 185 at a cost of £32.4 million, the airport was only able to handle just one in two flights.

“It’s unbelievable. The runways seemed clear and they have cancelled the flights,” said Philippa Britton, of Kendal, Cumbria.

Those flying in from Moscow voiced their disbelief that they were stranded, despite flying out from Russia in -20C snow storms. Miriam Walters, 62, a teacher, said: “The runways at Moscow were covered with snow and still we managed to leave.”

Although the bad weather caught airport operators unaware in 2010, The Met Office had predicted the weekend snowfall days in advance.

Gatwick, Stansted and London Luton had no disruption as did Manchester, Prestwick and Edinburgh. The number of planes stuck on the tarmac at Heathrow meant incoming flights were forced to divert elsewhere.

Hundreds of passengers were last night stranded in Ireland as six flights were sent to Shannon Airport. British Airways was badly affected, with two thirds of its flights between 9.15am and 2.15pm cancelled.

Stranded passengers said the airport refused to put them up in hotels, forcing them to sleep on yoga mats in terminals.

Elin Mabbutt, a mother of three from Aberystwyth, was due to fly to Mumbai on Saturday but her flight was cancelled. “It is frustrating especially as there is no sign of snow on the ground,” said Mrs Mabbutt, 33.

Lengthy delays meant many crew had exceeded their working hours and could not fly.

In December 2010 4,000 flights were cancelled over a week as cold weather and snow hit Britain. The economy lost an estimated £1.2 billion a day, and BAA some £20 million.

A report by Prof David Begg, an independent adviser, criticised the lack of preparedness and equipment. Transport experts said Heathrow struggles because the airport is stretched to the limit.

“Heathrow operates at full capacity all of the time so anytime there are adverse conditions, such as snow, some leeway has to be given, such as closing runways and parking stations,” said Mike Carrivick, the chief executive of the Board of Airlines, which promotes the business interests of airlines.


He said a review would now be carried out to establish whether changes to procedures, introduced after the weather problems in 2010, had worked and if “things went right and what went wrong”.

A spokesman for London First, a business group that represents 200 major companies, said employers would be concerned how the airport would cope on Monday.

“We think the impo

rtant thing is how quickly things get back to normal,” he said.

“Employers will be thinking ‘yes it snowed over the weekend and we got through it’ but they will ask how are is the airport going to cope today and will staff be able to travel and get into work.”

A spokesman for ABTA, the travel association, said: “The disruption once again raises the issue of capacity constraints at the busiest airports and highlights the need for a robust long term strategy for UK aviation.”

A spokesman for the British Bankers Association, who was stranded in Edinburgh, said any disruptions were of concern.

“It makes it more difficult for people to do business in the UK,” she said. “Clearly safety comes first but our concern is always with the transport systems and (such) disruptions have on business life.”

Boris Johnson, the London Mayor, has called for a new airport in the Thames, dubbed Boris Island. Plans for a third runway at Heathrow have been shelved.

BAA defended the way it had handled the weekend’s snow. Justine Greening, the Transport Secretary, said they had taken “the right approach”. She said: “The most important thing is making sure that we put safety first.

BAA said on Sunday night that the airport was expected to be running at full capacity on Monday.

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