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Airlines: Snow and Ice

Volume 724: debated on Thursday 27 January 2011


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what plans they have to ensure that airport authorities will be able to deal adequately with snow and ice in the future.

My Lords, the Government have invited the South East Airports Taskforce to consider airports’ contingency responses to last December’s severe weather. The Government are also considering proposals, under a Bill to reform economic regulation of airports, for new licensing provisions to give the aviation regulator more flexibility, where appropriate, to strengthen airports’ resilience to severe weather.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that. Does he agree that what happened at Heathrow last month represented a national humiliation, given that Heathrow was closed for far longer than other airports in other countries that suffered? Is not the problem that the British Airports Authority failed to learn the lessons of last winter and to invest in proper snow-clearing measures, with the result that the airlines, particularly British Airways, were out of pocket many times more than the cost of providing those measures?

My Lords, I share the noble Lord’s concern. It is important that we look at what happened, avoid a witch-hunt and make sure that BAA takes appropriate steps to avoid a repeat. It is important to remember that it cost BAA £24 million in lost revenue. It is also important to understand that, because of the situation that arose, there were 24 aircraft stands with an aircraft stuck on them and that it takes a very long time to clear a stand when the aircraft is standing on it.

My Lords, can my noble friend inform the House of the statistical and scientific evidence for the Met Office’s estimate that there was only a one in 20 chance of a severe winter in 2010-11, an estimate on which the airports relied?

My Lords, my right honourable friend the Secretary of State has asked Sir John Beddington to give him scientific advice on the likelihood of future severe winters. On 25 October 2010, the Met Office provided the Cabinet Office with an updated three-monthly forecast, which suggested a 40 per cent chance of cold conditions, a 30 per cent chance of near average conditions and a 30 per cent chance of mild conditions over northern Europe.

Does the Minister think that BAA and other airports might benefit from the experience of London Luton Airport, which this winter has lost just five hours of operations—that was due to closure of airspace by NATS—despite the fact that Luton experienced greater snowfall than Heathrow? Does he agree that this was down to good management and planning, involving investment in equipment and consumables, early rehearsals of runway closure procedures and co-ordination across the airport, particularly with handling agents?

My Lords, the noble Lord makes the important point that good planning can mitigate the effect, but Heathrow Airport experienced 16 centimetres of snow in one hour, which was far more than was reasonable to plan for.

I am one of those who suffered and waited at Gatwick Airport. Is the Minister aware that Gatwick managed to get all its passengers off at least two or three days ahead of Heathrow, I think, despite the fact that it suffered a great deal more snow? Gatwick set an example in that respect. I gather that it is not owned by BAA.

My Lords, most of what the noble and learned Baroness said is entirely correct. I am sure that the south-east airport review will take that matter into consideration.

My Lords, given that the Government understand the economic and social benefits attached to Heathrow and Gatwick, will they commission an independent investigation into the resources and procedures at those two airports to deal with snow and ice, compare those with what happens at New York and Boston Airports, and then publish the consequent report?

My Lords, I am sure that the output from the two reviews will achieve the effect that my noble friend desires.

My Lords, the House will be reassured that the Government are taking some action in this area, because action is certainly needed. We are all aware of the great significance of Heathrow in terms of passenger and freight traffic and its importance to tourism in this country. When the reputation of Heathrow suffers, so does the whole country. Will the Minister take particular interest in the level of communication with passengers when there are difficulties because there is no doubt that people suffered unduly at Heathrow as they had no idea what was going on day after day after day? It is important that the airport addresses this.

My Lords, the noble Lord makes an extremely important point. The point is applicable not just to Heathrow but to all transport modes. Noble Lords will remember the problems that we had with the railway industry, which struggled to cope with very difficult conditions but found it difficult to meet passengers’ expectations about information.

My Lords, will the Minister ensure that BAA is required to explain why those whose flights did not depart within four hours were not permitted access to terminal 1 on 22 December but were left outside in subzero temperatures, despite the fact that the terminal was half empty?

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that those airport managers who do not maintain sufficient snow and ice-clearing equipment should be forced to describe their airports as being only seasonal?

My Lords, when BAA makes its winter resilience plan, the plan is agreed with the airlines. However, what we experienced at Heathrow was far in excess of what was agreed on in the plan.

Does the Minister agree that lessons should be learnt from other countries? Is the noble Lord aware—

My Lords, the Minister will recollect that on the previous occasion that he answered questions on this issue in this House he made the very important point that part of the problem at Heathrow Airport, as we all know, is that it has no room for resilience because it operates at 98 per cent of its capacity day in and day out. When the weather changes or dramatic circumstances affect it, the airport has no flexibility. The answer to that lies either in increasing capacity or in reducing usage. Will this issue be addressed when resilience is being considered?

My Lords, I am sure that people will consider that, but it is important to remember that Charles de Gaulle Airport has four runways running at 75 per cent capacity but still experienced severe difficulties.