What went wrong at Terminal 5?

Firstly, I have no time for those who moan about delays and cancellations caused by snow at Heathrow. If an airport has just two runways which are full to capacity and they need to close them in rotation for snow-clearing, then it is pretty obvious that the capacity is going to go down by half. Then there are additional delays due to clearing work on taxiways and problems with grounded aircraft – Heathrow is built on a very cramped space and not only lacks runways but does not have very much spare space for extra manoeuvring. In other words, as soon as snow starts to settle, you can be pretty sure that Heathrow is going down to around 30% of capacity. Don’t waste time blaming the airport or the airlines – blame successive governments who have completely failed to plan, despite all the warnings from the aviation industry.

Secondly, I am actually rather a fan of Terminal 5. Most of the time, it works well and manages to handle a large number of passengers and aircraft in a very small space.

However, when snow hit Heathrow on Friday and Sunday, something went very wrong at Terminal 5 and no one seems to be admitting it or taking responsibility.

Airlines were told to cancel a large number of departures. For many, this was not a problem because several European airports were suffering as well, The airport made longhaul flights a priority. On Friday and Sunday, Virgin was able to fly most of its schedule and get aircraft away with around ninety minutes delay. Other longhaul airlines were able to do the same on the flights they had been allowed to operate.

BA cut a greater percentage of its longhaul flights than other operators but on Friday had to  give up on some of these after passengers had been on board for several hours because the crew had run out of legal flying hours. On Sunday, the position was a little better (only a flight to Las Vegas seems to have been cancelled after passengers had boarded) but most longhaul flights that did operate were leaving four hours late – at least twice the delay suffered by other airlines.

Just to emphasise the fact, the relatively few services BA runs from Terminals 1 and 3, but those that did operate from there, were departing much closer to schedule.

The issue at Terminal 5 seems to revolve around de-icing and aircraft getting trapped by other parked aircraft.

I appreciate that each incidence of winter weather is different but BA and Heathrow had plenty of warning about the conditions on Friday and Sunday and are supposed to have spent large sums on contingency planning. After the mess of Friday, they had all day Saturday to work out how to get things right on Sunday but, whilst it was a little better, the performance at Terminal 5 was still way below that of the other terminals.

What went wrong? When flights get cancelled, aircraft need to be parked. Surely, making arrangements for that is part of the contingency planning. De-icing is hardly an unusual requirement either. Ensuring you have de-icing capacity for the flights you intend to operate should not be too difficult.

I have no doubt that some serious questions are now being asked of those responsible at BA’s headquarters. Unfortunately, the airline is still retaining its public stance that they did everything they could and it was the airport’s fault which is clearly not the case. 

Time for a public apology.

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