One in five flights to and from Heathrow is to be cancelled tomorrow in a bid to avoid the chaotic scenes when snow disrupted schedules at Europe’s busiest airport.
Snow and reduced visibility is predicted for tomorrow. The airport owner and the airlines have agreed to reduce the level of operations in order to avoid the short-notice cancellations that cause massive problems for passengers and airlines.
Cancelling 20 per cent of aircraft movements creates “firebreaks” that give the airport far more resilience in the event of disruption. Figures released this week showed that Heathrow works on 98.2 per cent of capacity – a far higher proportion than any other airport.
The plan is designed to give passengers more certainty about their travel plans, so that they can turn up at the airport with reasonable confidence if their flight is set to operate, or rebook on another departure if they cannot travel on their intended service.
Heathrow’s chief operating officer, Normand Boivin, said: “Cancelling flights in advance of disruptive weather is a procedure used increasingly around the world, as it means the greatest number of passengers can fly with the minimum amount of disruption.”
By lunchtime today the mood at Britain’s premier transport hub, Heathrow Terminal 5, had subsided from fury and frustration to glum resignation. Overnight the British Airways terminal had resembled a refugee camp, with stranded passengers sleeping where they could on mats provided by the airline. And once again, images of the shambles when Europe’s busiest airport meets bad weather were beamed around the world.
An estimated 50,000 passengers were booked on the 400 flights cancelled yesterday – the majority of them BA departures. Most of the services that were axed were short-haul. But as problems with de-icing and a reduced “flow rate” built up, many intercontinental flights were cancelled – after the passengers had sat on board the planes for several hours waiting in vain for a departure slot.
Travellers bound for the US, Argentina, Hong Kong and South Africa complained that they were unable to retrieve their baggage, and that BA failed to provide hotel beds.
Although BA was legally obliged to provide accommodation for the tens of thousands of stranded passengers, the airline’s staff could not find enough hotel rooms in the Heathrow area.
From lunchtime onwards, the vast majority of the airline’s flights from Heathrow were cancelled - including dozens of long-haul flights. Many arrivals in the morning won’t show up, and in the first couple of hours a dozen outbound flights are axed.
The wintry weather, or at least Britain’s failure to deal with it, represents a loss of several million pounds to BA – and the travel plans of tens of thousands of passengers put on hold, with many of them stranded thousands of miles from home.
Even if Heathrow is back to normal at the weekend – which looks unlikely – it will take until Monday morning before everyone is back on track.
Other airlines were barely affected. Of 104 cancellations predicted for today, all but four were on BA.
Aer Lingus, Air France and Lufthansa each cancelled a single departure because of the effects of bad weather, while Qatar Airways dropped the daily service to Doha that was due to be operated by a Boeing 787 “Dreamliner” – the aircraft type currently grounded after safety concerns.
BA’s first two departures to Geneva, aimed squarely at upmarket skiers, were cancelled, along with dozens domestic and European departures. Many long-haul arrivals were cancelled because the outbound flight was grounded on Friday.
For every planeload of unhappy passengers stranded at Heathrow, there was an equal and opposite group of upset passengers at the other end, waiting for news on when they might be able to fly to London. Many of those lucky enough to reach the capital were dismayed to find that the Tube link was not operational, because of engineering work on the Piccadilly Line west of Hammersmith.