Heathrow must rise to Olympic challenge

Can Britain's busiest airport avoid another disaster this summer? Reputations are at stake

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The Independent Online

Using the word "snow" among the Heathrow bosses is a bit like talking about dates with Theresa May or stock control at Marks & Spencer: bound to raise blushes. Twice the white stuff has paralysed Britain's biggest airport in recent times, and the images of thousands of passengers camped out at Heathrow's terminals have haunted Colin Matthews, the chief executive of owner BAA, for years.

So the Olympics, where Heathrow will deal with 80 per cent of all the visitors, media and officials who travel to London, is being seen by BAA as its big chance to turn the airport's reputation around. There's a lot at stake: BAA is spending £20m building a new Games terminal at Heathrow, the size of the Paralympic seven-a-side football pitch, on top of a staff car park near terminal four, where Usain Bolt will visit one of 31 check-in desks and seven security lanes, before boarding buses to his departure lounge.

BAA is also building check-in desks at the Olympic village in Stratford for athletes to dump their trainers and tracksuits to be sent to Heathrow overnight. It's opening up the west London airport – whose innards normally lie quiet in the dark hours due to its night-time jet ban – 24/7 for staff to scan luggage and move it into stands to be loaded on to planes overnight. BAA is also building extra lifts to reunite Paralympians with their wheelchairs on arrival at the airport, while all holiday leave for the summer has been cancelled. Overall, Heathrow will have 400 extra employees to deal with the deluge. And it will be a deluge.

Heathrow is already the world's busiest airport, but during the Games it will be stuffed to the gills. On 13 August, the day after the closing ceremony, every seat on every plane flying out of the airport will be full. Heathrow will host 137,000 people – 10,000 more than ever before on a single day – on top of more than 200,000 suitcases, canoes, pole vaults, javelins and pistols – 30 per cent more baggage than its handlers will ever have coped with before.

In return, BAA gets no extra revenues. The airport is already full, so traffic cannot vastly increase. But the world's media will be ready to pounce if anything goes wrong. There's little to win, but everything to lose.

The organisers certainly have their work cut out. There are 200 separate organisations working at Heathrow, from baggage handlers and borders staff to retailers and logistics firms.

Little wonder, then, that insiders are telling me they are worrying about a Heathrow Olympics disaster. In March, Nick Cole, Heathrow's head of Olympic and Paralympic planning, admitted: "UKBA [borders officials] having enough staff to make sure all the gates are open [is what] keeps me awake at night.

"I'm confident of our planes, and some of the other plans. It's just all of them knitting together."

A month on, preparations are storming ahead at Heathrow. The special Games terminal had its topping out ceremony last month but when I ask Mr Cole if his fears of the airport organisers knitting together for the Games have been allayed, he responds: "The same issues are there, everybody has their part to play."

Those fears are echoed by John Whittingdale, chairman of the Commons Culture Select Committee, who last week wrote to Jeremy Hunt, Culture, Media and Sport Secretary, saying that a BAA briefing "did not [inspire] confidence that Heathrow was ready to cope with the arrival of a huge number of competitors, Olympic family and visiting tourists in timely fashion". He went on: "We understand that significant preparations have been made to accommodate unusual sporting equipment, special lanes for the Olympic family, welcoming arrangements for competitors and additional Olympic ambassadors. However, far less thought seems to have been given to the issue of how to deal with long queues at immigration."

Mr Whittingdale warned of the spectre of "planes [unable to] unload their passengers into the terminal due to capacity being exceeded, circling in the air, left on runways or blocking gates" and went so far as to warn that Britain's international reputation for tourism is at risk. "While visiting tourists will understand that the Olympics is a busy time, if the wait [at immigration] is in excess of an hour it may deter tourists from returning."

But BAA and the Borders Agency's response was to pass the buck. "Immigration is a matter for Border Force and the Home Office," says BAA. Mr Cole, head of Olympic planning, added: "We're talking to Border Force as a matter of urgency to put more staff on. Immigration waiting times during peak periods at Heathrow are frequently unacceptable." But a Border Force spokesperson hit back: "We are well prepared for the Olympics, with additional staff available for busy periods, but will not compromise on border security and are working with BAA to ensure we are ready to deal with extra passengers."

But airlines, too, are worried. A British Airways spokesman told The Independent: "We share the concerns about the UK immigration plans for the Olympics. Already at peak times the queues at Heathrow are unacceptable. In the last few weeks there's been a serious lack of manpower. We've also raised concerns to the Civil Aviation Authority about the management of air space. Heathrow is a gateway to the Olympics, it's crucial to get it right."

BA, with rival airlines easyJet and Virgin Atlantic, wrote a (leaked) letter to the Transport Secretary, Justine Greening, warning that "insufficient progress" had been made by the CAA to organise busy flight schedules and deal with the effects of cancelled flights due to bad weather or a potential "security event".

Mr Cole responds: "This is more of an airline issue than a BAA issue, but we've been speaking to airlines and Nats [National Air Traffic Services: Britain's air traffic control] about it. We have taken the very difficult step of closing Heathrow to charter and private flights between 14 July and September to help scheduled flights. We've done our bit, the rest is up to Nats and the CAA."

The airport is filling its terminals with TV screens to beam Games footage but the hope for BAA – and, by extension, Britain – is that passengers, be they gold-medal winners or the Joneses en route to Hawaii – will be toasting Heathrow with as much enthusiasm.

Flaked out: Snow joke

Snowgate (or no gate, as most passengers found), meant thousands of passengers had to camp in Heathrow's terminals around Christmas 2010 as airlines cancelled hundreds of flights when the airport couldn't cope with snow. An independent inquiry into BAA's struggles with the white stuff found that the airport operator was "initially ineffective", leading to travel chaos and "distress" to passengers.

BAA didn't have specialised de-icing equipment for clearing aircraft stands and hadn't organised a detailed snow plan. In response, BAA set out a £50m resilience investment plan. Then, in February this year, snow again put the airport at the centre of criticism. Half of all flights were grounded at the world's busiest airport – including those with departure times several hours after it had stopped snowing.

Lucy Tobin