Monday, 20 December 2010

Heathrow- White but in the brown stuff.

As much of the Sky and BBC 24 connected world knows, UK Plc is suffering a bit of embarrassment over the inability of the world's busiest international airline hub to recover quickly from snow which last fell on Saturday. It is now Monday night and Tuesday looks little better with the southern runway billed to stay closed, presumably still snow and ice covered. Why? The root of the problem is unclear-not enough machines? manpower?fluid?Heath and safety issues? What? No clues have emerged from the BAA and BA leaders who have appeared on our screens. All they have done is to say they are working on it, disruption will last for some days, airlines which don't announce their cancellations are bad and passengers whose travel isn't really necessary (in Christmas week?) should do them a favour and cancel, presumably to hold Christmas in June or some other time convenient to the operators.

It is all extraordinary,- or appears to be. Maybe it isn't but clearly Joe Public is not to be trusted with real information. The same appears to be happening at Eurostar over at St Pancras. Intending passengers are required to queue in the freezing cold outside in a line stretching back to the British Library. Presumably it is considered good for them and anyway keeps them from cluttering up the very pleasant cafe and shop lined interior of the building .The ticket office is closed until New Year as "We have no more tickets to sell". Neither there nor at Heathrow do there appear to be enough staff and their leaders simply walking the floor giving information and solving whatever problems there are as best they can. Few probably have "the authority" to do much or make even minor non standard decisons anyway. This is another recent problem in some service businesses. The Heathrow terminal situation is almost becoming a humanitarian problem now.The foreign airlines seem to be coping much better but the home teams seem just overwhelmed. Again the question, "Why?". No well trained army of Head Office and other volunteers able to provide real help or a friendly face? Are the basics of friendly faces and care of people not a dominant part of the corporate ethos? We are talking airports, airlines and rail companies here,- not banks.

Philip Hammond, the Transport Minister, says that there will be a thorough assessment of all the problems and their solutions once life is back to normal. Very sensible and he looks as if he will keep it objective.Let's hope though that rather than entrusting the task to civil servants he will recruit a team well versed in organisational structures, the mechanics and the detail of making airports run, and the concepts and fundamentals of of customer care. Key is the need to look beyond "who didn't order the snowplough?" and who did what on the day to the underlying corporate ethos. What sort of people run the companies concerned? What are their core vaues? As well as vital profitability ,are they really all about genuine customer service and care when things go wrong? How are the hands-on operational professionals regarded in the company and are they listened to or scorned? What happens in annual reviews to people who champion spending money on an occasional but vital need? One suspects that they may have a hard time of it and risk being labelled as lacking commercial acumen or awareness and generally rather boring compared to the more glitzy and higher profile marketing and other folk. It's worth a probing look. Nearly every disaster is a long time in the making before it happens and it stems from roots far from the scene and time of the event and people on whose watch it eventually happens. Sadly though ,courts of enquiry and the like often don't look far enough back along the chain of events .It is usually those holding the ball on the day who end up in the dock. The blame is allocated,scapegoats selected and sacked, imprisoned or just villified and the world moves on without learning the lessons .The really guilty escape unscathed.That's what happened when Heathrow's Terminal 5 originally opened and there is a danger it will happen again.Over to you Mr Hammond.