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?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

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

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Recruitment Genius: Business Travel Consultant

    £20000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: With offices in London, Manches...

    Recruitment Genius: Customer and Brand Manager

    £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Customer and Brand Manager required for ...

    Ashdown Group: Systems Administrator

    £25000 - £35000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Systems Administrator A...

    Recruitment Genius: Graphic Designer - Product Development

    £26000 - £29000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The Product Development departm...

    Day In a Page

    Migrant crisis: UN official Philippe Douste-Blazy reveals the harrowing sights he encountered among refugees arriving on Lampedusa

    ‘Can we really just turn away?’

    Dead bodies, men drowning, women miscarrying – a senior UN figure on the horrors he has witnessed among migrants arriving on Lampedusa, and urges politicians not to underestimate our caring nature
    Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger as Isis ravages centuries of history

    Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger...

    ... and not just because of Isis vandalism
    Girl on a Plane: An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack

    Girl on a Plane

    An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack
    Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

    Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

    The author of 'The Day of the Jackal' has revealed he spied for MI6 while a foreign correspondent
    Markus Persson: If being that rich is so bad, why not just give it all away?

    That's a bit rich

    The billionaire inventor of computer game Minecraft says he is bored, lonely and isolated by his vast wealth. If it’s that bad, says Simon Kelner, why not just give it all away?
    Euro 2016: Chris Coleman on course to end half a century of hurt for Wales

    Coleman on course to end half a century of hurt for Wales

    Wales last qualified for major tournament in 1958 but after several near misses the current crop can book place at Euro 2016 and end all the indifference
    Rugby World Cup 2015: The tournament's forgotten XV

    Forgotten XV of the rugby World Cup

    Now the squads are out, Chris Hewett picks a side of stars who missed the cut
    A groundbreaking study of 'Britain's Atlantis' long buried at the bottom of the North Sea could revolutionise how we see our prehistoric past

    Britain's Atlantis

    Scientific study beneath North Sea could revolutionise how we see the past
    The Queen has 'done and said nothing that anybody will remember,' says Starkey

    The Queen has 'done and said nothing that anybody will remember'

    David Starkey's assessment
    Oliver Sacks said his life has been 'an enormous privilege and adventure'

    'An enormous privilege and adventure'

    Oliver Sacks writing about his life
    'Gibraltar is British, and it is going to stay British forever'

    'Gibraltar is British, and it is going to stay British forever'

    The Rock's Chief Minister hits back at Spanish government's 'lies'
    Britain is still addicted to 'dirty coal'

    Britain still addicted to 'dirty' coal

    Biggest energy suppliers are more dependent on fossil fuel than a decade ago
    Orthorexia nervosa: How becoming obsessed with healthy eating can lead to malnutrition

    Orthorexia nervosa

    How becoming obsessed with healthy eating can lead to malnutrition
    Lady Chatterley is not obscene, says TV director

    Lady Chatterley’s Lover

    Director Jed Mercurio on why DH Lawrence's novel 'is not an obscene story'
    Farmers in tropical forests are training ants to kill off bigger pests

    Set a pest to catch a pest

    Farmers in tropical forests are training ants to kill off bigger pests