Airport meltdown: Airlines attack BAA over its handling of terror crisis, saying it 'cannot cope'

With one in three departures axed, Ryanair demands police or army help to keep London's main hubs open. By Simon Calder

Heathrow airport moved closer to meltdown last night as a three-day show of unity between the Government, airports and airlines disintegrated. BAA, which owns the UK's leading airports, ordered airlines to axe one in three departures in the afternoon and evening. In response, British Airways' chief executive launched an unprecedented attack on the airport authorities.

Willie Walsh, who took over the helm at BA last October, had spent the previous 60 hours watching his airline's passengers take the brunt of the new and draconian security imposed in the early hours of last Thursday. He accused BAA of being "unable to provide a robust security search process and baggage operation". As a result, he said, "We are being forced to cancel flights and operate some others from Heathrow without all the passengers on board."

Most industry insiders had predicted that the chaos seen at Britain's airports on Thursday and Friday would quickly ease. Under the new security regime, only a minimal number of personal items are permitted; everything else must be checked in. As passengers and staff became accustomed to the new rules, it was expected that airlines' schedules would get back into shape.

Outside the London area, that is certainly the case: charter carriers and smaller airlines reported no more problems than the odd delay, typical of a Saturday in August. But Heathrow - where BA is by far the biggest carrier - was in disarray.

At the start of the day, BA announced that 10 transatlantic flights and 21 European departures from its main base had been cancelled. By 9am, 10 more flights had been axed - with dozens more cancelled after the airport authorities' demand that airlines cut their departures by one-third.

Cancelling the average short-haul round-trip represents a loss of around £20,000 in earnings; for transatlantic services the figure is up to £300,000. But what worries Mr Walsh and his fellow airline bosses much more is the long-term effect of the crisis on passenger numbers.

Every passenger, regardless of destination, is subject to the cabin-baggage ban and an extra "pat-down" from security officials after passing through the metal detector. The compulsory body-search has more than doubled the time taken to process each passenger. But US-bound travellers are faced with further checks at the departure gate: all footwear must be removed for inspection, and some items acquired in the "airside" shops are confiscated.

Once the cabin door is closed, the passenger list - together with other personal data - is transmitted to the American authorities. The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) and other agencies comb the manifest in the search for people on the "watch list". Only when all the officials are satisfied about passengers' credentials is permission for departure given. This process has been taking an average of three hours, with some flights delayed by up to seven hours.

"It's BA 223 all over again, only for every flight", said one senior source - referring to British Airways flight 223 from London to Washington DC. In January 2004, intelligence reports suggested that this service was the intended target of a terrorist attack, and it was repeatedly delayed for several hours - and eventually BA erased the flight number from the schedules. The difference in August 2006 is that passengers are not allowed to bring on board so much as a paperback book with which to pass the time.

London and South-east England is the richest aviation market in Europe, but by tomorrow morning some imaginative businesspeople and holidaymakers will have discovered a new gateway to the world: Waterloo International. The Eurostar terminal has already picked up thousands of grounded flyers trying to reach Paris and Brussels: at one stage the cross-Channel train operator was receiving 10 bookings a minute for immediate travel.

Check-in time for Eurostar's premium passengers at the South Bank station is only 15 minutes, and the longer the Department for Transport's ban on cabin baggage endures, the more long-haul travellers are expected to switch to Continental airports. Business travellers accustomed to using their laptops on long flights have been appalled to find their computers consigned to the hold. No other nation has imposed anything like the UK's new security regime, and airports that allow passengers to take bags on board are three hours or less from Waterloo.

British Airways and Virgin Atlantic make most of their profits on Heathrow-US routes. With every day of disruption, more and more passengers will switch to other routes - or decide not to travel. This explains Willie Walsh's anger with the airport, which is matched by BAA's vexation with the Department for Transport. BA insiders also regard the US authorities' performance in processing passenger lists as lamentable. Even with security staff working long shifts, the present regime is seen as unsustainable.

"With the so-called 'special relationship'," said one insider, "Douglas Alexander [the Secretary of State for Transport] should be on the phone to Washington urging them to ease the rules".

Until that happens, we could be watching the slow death, by airport constriction, of Britain's previously flourishing aviation industry.

The new security measures: Travellers face double searches

TRAVELLING TO THE US

Passengers should expect two searches: once at the central screening point and again at the boarding gate. All passengers will be hand searched and footwear, pushchairs and walking aids will be x-rayed. Standard baggage restrictions list still applies. Only wallets, travel documents, essential medicine and approved items may be carried aboard, in clear plastic bags.

Anything not on the list will be confiscated.

Passengers should arrive early and expect severe delays. Check with airlines before leaving.

TRAVELLING TO NON-US DESTINATIONS

Passengers face the same restrictions before boarding as for US-bound flights, but can buy goods after they are searched and carry them onto flights in ordinary bags.

TRAVELLING FROM THE US TO THE UK

Extra searches and additional search of bags at the boarding gate. No liquids or gels in carry-on baggage allowed.

DELAYS AND CANCELLATIONS

Heathrow

BAA is expecting the number of flights cancelled to fall in the coming days and is advising passengers to arrive prepared, with no hand luggage and with necessary items in a clear plastic bag. Delays are expected. Passengers are advised to arrive early, to allow enough time to check in and for increased security measures.

Gatwick

Both terminals and roads around the airport are very busy, its website reports. "We recommend you use public transport and allow extra time for your journey."

Delays for check-in and flight departures are expected. The airport is advising passengers to check with their airline for cancellations before arriving.

Manchester Airport

A spokesman asked holidaymakers to arrive on time in order to cope with the extra security measures. He said most passengers seemed to be coping well with the increased security.

Stansted

Passengers are being urged to arrive prepared as the airport struggles to get back to normal. A spokesman said it was relying on passengers to help themselves and airport staff by arriving early and with no hand luggage.

The spokesman said that passengers should check the status of their flights with their airline before arriving. "If your flight has not been cancelled you need to allow plenty of extra time to get through security," he said.

Luton

Passengers are being advised to arrive at the airport early, allowing extra time for security checks. Anyone not travelling is not allowed into the terminal building.

Birmingham

Birmingham is asking passengers to turn up for flights as normal, but it said people should carry no hand luggage unless essential.

People should arrive at the airport with plenty of time to spare and not expecting to book in at the "last minute".

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Field Engineer

£15000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company has 30 years of ex...

Recruitment Genius: Customer Account Manager

£27000 - £33000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This fast growing cloud based I...

Ashdown Group: Product Marketing Manager - Software & Services

£35000 - £45000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Product Marketing Manager...

Recruitment Genius: Exhibition Sales Executive - OTE £35,000

£16000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An expanding B2B exhibition and...

Day In a Page

General Election 2015: The masterminds behind the scenes

The masterminds behind the election

How do you get your party leader to embrace a message and then stick to it? By employing these people
Machine Gun America: The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons

Machine Gun America

The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons
The ethics of pet food: Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?

The ethics of pet food

Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?
How Tansy Davies turned 9/11 into her opera 'Between Worlds'

How a composer turned 9/11 into her opera 'Between Worlds'

Tansy Davies makes her operatic debut with a work about the attack on the Twin Towers. Despite the topic, she says it is a life-affirming piece
11 best bedside tables

11 best bedside tables

It could be the first thing you see in the morning, so make it work for you. We find night stands, tables and cabinets to wake up to
Italy vs England player ratings: Did Andros Townsend's goal see him beat Harry Kane and Wayne Rooney to top marks?

Italy vs England player ratings

Did Townsend's goal see him beat Kane and Rooney to top marks?
Danny Higginbotham: An underdog's tale of making the most of it

An underdog's tale of making the most of it

Danny Higginbotham on being let go by Manchester United, annoying Gordon Strachan, utilising his talents to the full at Stoke and plunging into the world of analysis
Audley Harrison's abusers forget the debt he's due, but Errol Christie will always remember what he owes the police

Steve Bunce: Inside Boxing

Audley Harrison's abusers forget the debt he's due, but Errol Christie will always remember what he owes the police
No postcode? No vote

Floating voters

How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

By Reason of Insanity

Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

Power dressing is back

But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

Caves were re-opened to the public
'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

Vince Cable interview

'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat