Simon Calder: Another winter of airport discontent

The man who pays his way

Amie Richan was among the luckier passengers. Last Saturday morning she woke up in a hotel bed, rather than on a thin plastic mat on the floor of Europe's most expensive building, Heathrow Terminal 5. Even so, she shared the oft-quoted sentiment attributed to W C Fields: "All in all, I'd rather be in Philadelphia." She had been heading home to Pennsylvania, but was one of tens of thousands of BA passengers whose flights were cancelled at short notice last Friday when the snow arrived over London. Once again, Europe's busiest airport proved unable to cope. We pick up her story just after her flight has been abruptly cancelled and she was told to return "landside".

"There was absolutely not one person from BA in evidence in baggage reclaim. There were pilots and flight attendants looking for their own baggage and vainly attempting to contact managers and supervisors. A number of pilots said that they had never seen anything like this."

Eventually, she was assigned a hotel room 20 miles (and a £100 taxi ride) away at Tower Bridge. The hotel manager stayed on the phone to BA long enough to rebook her on another flight. She reached home at midnight on Saturday.

You know, of course, that Heathrow is 98.2 per cent full, and therefore any significant reduction in the "flow rate" of arrivals and departures will inevitably trigger cancellations.

You are also aware that, after the debacle two winters ago, the new, improved snow plan includes the option to cancel a proportion of flights, in advance, to create "firebreaks" allowing swift recovery from disruption. The airport, airlines and air-traffic controllers duly met on Thursday, the day before the predicted snow, and concluded there was no need to axe flights. The airport could cope. Of course it could.

Slots: lost the plot?

The latest snowstorm, or more accurately the response to it, will have cost British Airways somewhere between £10m and £20m in lost ticket revenue, accommodation and transport costs. Heathrow airport will have taken less of a hit; the lost earnings from the reduction in passenger numbers and flight operations will be partly offset by the commission the airport earns from delayed travellers' spending in cafés and shops. The cost to Britain's reputation of another national embarrassment is incalculable.

British Airways said it was "extremely sorry" for passengers' "frustration and inconvenience during this period of severe weather". The airport's chief executive, Colin Matthews, said, "I'm really sorry for every passenger who got caught up in the disruption."

Then "Mr Gatwick", in the shape of Stewart Wingate, boss of Heathrow's main rival, chipped in: "The over-scheduling of flights at Heathrow during the winter period should stop." His plan is from December to February that "Heathrow declares a level of capacity it can cope with in winter conditions. The additional flights then, for those three months, can move to Gatwick and Stansted." The idea is fanciful, because the airlines won't comply. If they wanted to fly to one of London's other airports, they could. But Mr Wingate's plan contains the germ of a good idea.

At present, the rigid rule on slots at Heathrow is "use them or lose them". Permission to take off and land at Heathrow is the most valuable commodity in aviation, so it seems obvious to insist that these precious resources are not squandered. The consequences, though, are sometimes absurd. British Mediterranean kept slots warm by flying empty jets between Heathrow and Cardiff. Across the year, the average plane has loads of spare seats; one out of four is empty, a proportion that increases in winter.

For the key winter months, airlines using Heathrow should be able to combine flights, in advance, without losing slots. BA's 11 daily flights to Paris can comfortably shed a couple, while Lufthansa's 10 Heathrow-Frankfurt hops could easily be decimated. The airlines could ramp up the schedule for Christmas and New Year, and again for the Valentine and half-term surges in February, when they can fill all available seats. It wouldn't be perfect, but it could be better.

No flexi-time at BA

Back in Philadelphia, Amie Richan is seething because her stress and expense were avoidable. "When bad weather was predicted on Thursday, I called BA to say I could fly earlier," she says. BA would allow passengers to change free of charge – but only to postpone a journey. People willing to travel earlier would have to pay hundreds of pounds for the privilege, which Amie declined.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
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.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Guru Careers: Dining Room Head Chef

    £32K: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Dining Room Head Chef to work for one of ...

    Guru Careers: Pastry Sous Chef / Experienced Pastry Chef

    £27K: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Pastry Sous Chef / Experienced Pastry Che...

    Guru Careers: Events Coordinator / Junior Events Planner

    £24K + Excellent Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking an Events Coordinator ...

    Royal Yachting Association Cymru Wales: Chief Executive Officer

    Salary 42,000: Royal Yachting Association Cymru Wales: The CEO is responsible ...

    Day In a Page

    Raif Badawi: Wife pleads for fresh EU help as Saudi blogger's health worsens

    Please save my husband

    As the health of blogger Raif Badawi worsens in prison, his wife urges EU governments to put pressure on the Saudi Arabian royal family to allow her husband to join his family in Canada
    Birthplace of Arab Spring in turmoil as angry Tunisians stage massive sit-in over lack of development

    They shall not be moved: jobless protesters bring Tunisia to a halt

    A former North African boom town is wasting away while its unemployed citizens stick steadfastly to their sit-in
    David Hasselhoff's new show 'Hoff the Record': What's it like working with a superstar?

    Hanging with the Hoff

    Working with David Hasselhoff on his new TV series was an education for Ella Smith
    Can Dubai's Design District 'hipster village' attract the right type of goatee-wearing individualist?

    Hipsters of Arabia

    Can Dubai’s ‘creative village’ attract the right type of goatee-wearing individualist?
    The cult of Roger Federer: What is it that inspires such obsessive devotion?

    The cult of Roger Federer

    What is it that inspires such obsessive devotion?
    Kuala Lumpur's street food: Not a 'scene', more a way of life

    Malaysian munchies

    With new flights, the amazing street food of Kuala Lumpur just got more accessible
    10 best festival beauty

    Mud guards: 10 best festival beauty

    Whether you're off to the Isle of Wight, Glastonbury or a local music event, we've found the products to help you
    Unai Emery’s passion for winning and eye for a bargain keep Seville centre stage in Europe

    A Different League

    Unai Emery’s passion for winning and eye for a bargain keep Seville centre stage in Europe, says Pete Jenson
    Amir Khan and James DeGale’s remarkable Olympic performances were just the start of an extraordinary journey - Steve Bunce

    Steve Bunce on Boxing

    Amir Khan and James DeGale’s remarkable Olympic performances were just the start of an extraordinary journey
    Abuse - and the hell that came afterwards

    Abuse - and the hell that follows

    James Rhodes on the extraordinary legal battle to publish his memoir
    Why we need a 'tranquility map' of England, according to campaigners

    It's oh so quiet!

    The case for a 'tranquility map' of England
    'Timeless fashion': It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it

    'Timeless fashion'

    It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it
    If the West needs a bridge to the 'moderates' inside Isis, maybe we could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive after all

    Could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive?

    Robert Fisk on the Fountainheads of World Evil in 2011 - and 2015
    New exhibition celebrates the evolution of swimwear

    Evolution of swimwear

    From bathing dresses in the twenties to modern bikinis
    Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study

    One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf