Friday 30 September 2022, JW Marriott Grosvenor
21 November 2022, Hilton London Metropole
Business Travel Show Europe, presented by The BTN
Gales, floods and blizzards equal delays, cancellations and angry passengers. But what can an airport do?
Gatwick’s shellacking in front of the Transport Select Committee this week must have been embarrassing for everyone at the airport. And things had been going so well, too. The airport’s owner has poured millions of pounds into sprucing up the facility over the last few years. From being a dirty and dated pair of terminals it has arguably morphed into one of the Europe’s best mid-size airports.
But CEO Stewart Wingate rightly held up his hands and admitted more could have been done to mitigate the Christmas Eve chaos. Heavy rains and flooding triggered a power cut that left the North Terminal in darkness. The inclement weather forced airlines to cancel flights, leaving thousands stranded. easyJet, Gatwick’s biggest customer, lambasted the airport operator, claiming it exacerbated an extremely sensitive situation by not having adequate contingency plans in place.
Online, dozens of travel and aviation tweeters suggested Heathrow would be rubbing its hands with glee as it watched the situation spiral out of control. But one aviation expert who spoke to Buying Business Travel this morning [January 9], says there’s no room for schadenfreude between the airports. Almost a year ago to the day Heathrow was facing widespread criticism from the public and media for its inability to cope with heavy snowfall. So are British airports just not properly geared up to deal with anything worse than heavy rain? I asked John Strickland of JLS Consulting.
“When Heathrow [was closed] by the heavy snow Gatwick was proudly saying it had invested in kit and wasn’t affected,” he recalls. “Airports are there but for the grace of God. Whether it's snow, flooding or runway blockages you just have to focus on your job and do it to the very best of your ability. Comparing yourself to other airports is inviting it to come back and bite you."
Strickland says he has never come across an airport closure caused by a loss of power, and acknowledges better contingency plans should have been in place at Gatwick, but he insists preparing for adverse weather conditions is not an easy task for an airport operator.
“Snow comes with every winter, and recently lessons have been learned and airports have improved. But airlines want low [airport] charges and negotiate strongly to get those. Airports are then doing their best to deliver. That means they can’t afford to be investing in kit and manpower for something that, statistically, will rarely, if ever, be used.
“When you get maybe one or two snowy days a year you can’t realistically, in a commercial market, invest like they do in Scandinavia and Iceland. If you are expecting to use your equipment half of the year or 25% of the year because there is a constant need to clear snow and runways it makes sense. I don’t wait to tempt providence, but this winter we might not get you the same intensity of snow that we had last year or the year before. It’s a difficult balance between investment and delivery.”
If the extreme weather conditions of the last few winters do return to haunt UK airports this month, passengers better be prepared for disruption. It seems that until someone steps forward foot the bill for equipment and manpower - be it the airline or the passenger - headlines about winter chaos at UK airports will as inevitable as Christmas.