BAA in war of words with BA as Heathrow disruption continues

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The Independent Travel

As 50,000 more travellers saw their Christmas plans wrecked by yesterday's flight cancellations at Heathrow, a war of words broke out between the airport owner, BAA, and its biggest customer. British Airways cancelled 150 flights on the basis of what it says turned out to be misleading guidance from the airport operator about when the second runway would reopen.

And as BAA's chief executive, Colin Matthews, bowed to pressure to forgo his bonus, the airport operator warned that it could deny access to airlines who fail to demonstrate their capacity to cope with a future crisis. But it is understood that BAA's board rubber-stamped a £10m snow investment programme on Tuesday after Mr Matthews acknowledged Heathrow's lack of equipment had been exposed.

Four of the eight BA flights to and from Paris have been axed today, together with four to Edinburgh, three to Manchester and to Aberdeen, and two to both Glasgow and Newcastle. Most European destinations can expect their first full quota of BA flights since last week. Some BA inbound intercontinental services have been cancelled, but all BA long-haul outbound flights are expected to depart.

The airline said it had planned yesterday's flying after BAA "issued a directive that Heathrow airport would operate one-third of a normal flight schedule". But the second, southerly runway reopened on Tuesday afternoon which would have allowed BA to operate many more flights yesterday.

Willie Walsh, BA's chief executive, said: "We typically spend six weeks pulling together the complex Christmas rosters for our 14,000 cabin crew and more than 3,000 pilots. Those 17,000 rosters [have] been torn up by the days of disruption at Heathrow and around the world."

The airline dispatched wide-bodied Boeing 777s to key European cities where there were stranded passengers. The public areas of the passenger terminals at Heathrow continued to bear more resemblance to a First World War field hospital than a 21st-century transport hub but the airport blamed the airlines.

Simon Baugh of BAA told the BBC: "A lot of smaller carriers who operated out of Heathrow who only have one or two flights a day, and are not based in the UK, have not been able to deal with the volume of calls and inquiries they have had from their passengers, and their websites have not been updated frequently enough.

"We need to look seriously at whether we make it a condition of operating at Heathrow that if you want to fly from the UK's biggest hub, then you have to be able to answer passengers' queries better in periods like this."

Declining his 2010 bonus, BAA boss Mr Matthews, said: "We've had unacceptable conditions for passengers in the last few days, I'm responsible." Last year he was paid around £1.1m, roughly twice the expenditure made by Heathrow on preparations for dealing with snow this winter.

The airlines have lost tens of millions of pounds in revenue and additional costs as a result of Saturday's snowfall. One source said snow clearance only began after an official noticed the ice was thawing.

BA's operations have suffered most because it has nearly half of all landing and take-off slots. More than 40 fully loaded long-haul BA Boeings were diverted other airports. "We have never seen so many diversions of long-haul aircraft, even during the volcanic ash crisis," BA said.

As it became clear the Heathrow backlog would not be cleared by Christmas and some passengers might remain out of position until the new year, BA and Virgin Atlantic asked passengers to consider deferring their trips. Virgin offered full refunds to anyone booked to travel today or tomorrow, while BA extends the offer to the end of the year.

Airports latest

* Almost a third of the 1,300 flights that pass through Heathrow on an average day were cancelled yesterday. A slightly increased service is expected today.

* Other airports were taking up the slack, with London Gatwick operating at 115 per cent capacity and taking on 70 extra flights.

* About 1,100 passengers were still stranded at Heathrow yesterday and had yet to be repatriated.

* British Airways says it has cancelled 2,000 flights and diverted 40 fully-laden planes over the past six days. The disruption is thought to have cost the airline up to £40m in lost profits.

* BAA spent just £500,000 more this year on winter equipment at Heathrow, compared with £8m at Gatwick.