Leading article: Passengers should be treated decently, even when it snows

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From Northern Ireland to the south-east of England, the United Kingdom has been in the grip of its second serious snowfall of the season, with all the disruption and disappointment that comes with it. But a touch of realism is also needed. There are times, in even the best-prepared and best-organised countries, when severe weather thwarts transport of all kinds. Britain has not been the only place to have shuddered to a halt in the face of sub-zero temperatures and early snow. It is not just British planes and trains that have been cancelled, not just British roads where snow has trapped drivers in their vehicles overnight.

Of course, this was a particularly unfortunate weekend for the snow to fall; 25 December represents an immovable deadline for the millions who celebrate Christmas according to the Western calendar. As in the United States before Thanksgiving, whole families are on the move for a reunion that may happen just once a year. Any cancellation or postponement has knock-on effects on a myriad minutely-planned journeys.

So it was entirely predictable that, when British Airways announced the cancellation of all its Heathrow flights and many of its Gatwick flights on Saturday, the passions of grounded passengers would be running high. As the blizzard passed from west to east, other airports closed runways and other airlines had to cancel flights. In the meantime, thousands had found themselves stranded at airports, forced to kip down where they could under thermal sheets, and with no certainty about when, or even whether, they would fly.

And this points to some of what needs to be done differently. If airports cannot control the weather, (which they cannot), and if even hi-tech equipment cannot cope, (which seems to have been the case at Heathrow and Gatwick), the airport authorities and the airlines must devise far better contingency arrangements. The problem is especially acute at London's airports, in particular Heathrow, because they are such major international hubs. It is not just the airports that should see their interest in getting this right, but the Government. Airport shortcomings quickly affect the country's reputation as a business and tourist destination; complaints are swiftly heard around the world.

This weekend, although heavy snow was forecast, neither the airlines nor the airports appear to have been any better prepared than in the past to deal with so many stranded passengers. But the biggest complaint from would-be passengers was not about execrable conditions at the airports, but about the lack of timely and accurate information. BA, by cancelling its flights early and asking people not to go the airport, may in fact have done its passengers a favour.

It is all very well for airlines to blame the British Airports Authority, and vice versa, but the demarcation of responsibilities means little to stranded travellers. Nor is it any use directing people to phone lines that are not answered or websites they have no means of accessing. Most people will appreciate that, in a fluid situation, airlines will not immediately be able to produce a new booking, but some early commitment to a refund or a flight allocated on a fair basis might help cool tempers. Even the presence of someone official and informed would be an improvement.

All that said, not everything was as bleak as the weather. This time, many major roads were treated and remained open. In London, unlike last January when the mayor had all the buses taken off the road, public transport was mostly restored once the storm had passed. And from all over the country came reports of NHS staff and others turning up to work on a day off because they could get there and knew others could not. We could do with a bit more of that spirit at the airports.

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