Friday, 25 January 2013

Snowed under,- Heathrow,- the World's not so busy busiest international airport.

It's happened again. The best laid plans of mice, if not men, have failed to cope with a well forecast dusting of snow at London's Heathrow airport during the past week. OK, it fell steadily for most of a day, settled where it lay, amounted to a few inches in places but  it didn't drift or do anything unpredictable. The airport itself was much better prepared for it than in former years and amon gst other things now has an effective, fully trained army of paid part timers who can be called in at short notice to operate the heavy snow clearing equipment on an ad hoc basis. Runways were cleared when necessary, a process which means each has to be closed for around 45 minutes, not the end of the world. The overall verdict us that apart from being lacking a dynamic rather than a conservative approach, the BAA didn't do as badly as many of the media portrayed. They tend to get blamed for the shortcomings of others including National Air Traffic Services who were also at times very cautious especially on the most  problematical evening.(see next paragraph)

 The wheels did at times came spectacularly off the operation, particularly in Terminal 5 where on the first night which followed a day of widespread short haul cancellations but the BA long haul programme had proceeded almost intact. Quite suddenly almost all of the late evening long haul and ultra long haul departures, ten in all, failed to get away even after passengers were boarded . Sandwiched between de-icing and slot problems, they eventually nightstopped as the crews ran into Flight Time Limitations. By this time many of the ramp, passenger services and (re) ticketing staff had gone home so real problems set in and passengers were kept on board for several hours, that being the best place to be. Once disembarked most had no alternative but to accept the BAA's offer of floor mats and bottles of water. Hotel rooms and means of getting to them are not thick on the ground in the small hours and for around five hours  every night there are no rail or underground services. The inevitable media photographs of what looked like a refugee camp followed. All concerned were fortunate that media headlines were primarily focused on events in Algeria and Mali.

What went wrong and why was the largest home based carrier and its primary terminal disproportionately affected and why after a reasonable day did the substantial tail end of their long haul programme fall over?

First up is that with the best of intentions both the airport and BA have in recent tears abandoned the policy of setting out to operate as much of the schedule as possible and take the knocks as they come. The former philosophy of "Fly the plan", partly by instilling a "Go for it" culture on the day generally saw more flights get away than the current one of a precautionary cull which results in a different mindset. Not pre-cancelling also allowed for flexibility if conditions or the ability to deal with them turned out to be better than forecast , as is often the case.

BA's next problem is that due to different union agreements it is extremely limited in its ability to keep aircraft, pilots and cabin crew transiting Heathrow together. Everywhere else they can, but "minimum base turnaround" deals which allow most crews to come off the  aircraft for a break. This means that an aircraft may have arrived and be ready to go but pilots may be awaited from one inbound flight and the cabin crew from another. The rest of the day's short haul schedule is therefore extremely fragile and sorting it out highly complex even  under disruption agreements. As result, descheduling is the easiest way to go and also to protect the next day's operation. Thanks to the commercial need to nightstop aircraft away from London so that they can operate early morning high yield business and connecting flights back, the whole BA short haul operation is much more complex,- and expensive,- that the low cost carriers general policy of no nightstops and keeping the aircraft, pilots and cabin crew together through a complete 2 , 4 or even 6 sector shift. These airlines also treat their base airports just as any other with no need for am extended rest break on the ground. Their crew rosters are also self contained within 24 hours and do not involve several continuous days with nightstops away from home as BA's can. Complexity as well as union agreements is a feature of BA's short haul operation and this adds to its fragility.  The whole situation is worse for the airline than or any other as it is compounded by its aircraft having to transit Heathrow three or even four times in a day.

Another area of difficulty for BA is that the decisions on which flights to cancel appear not to be based on strategic commercial factors. As result domestics go first and with them many connections onto long haul flights. The Gulf, Asian and American airlines operating out of the provinces must be delighted to receive this free contribution to their marketing efforts. Furthest north, the regular traveller rotation workers on rigs off Aberdeen seem to get hit particularly badly with their BA flights being cancelled while others fly in and out with much less disruption. These look like avoidable own goals and need more thought.

Conclusion? Most at Heathrow actually achieved much of what they set out to do. The fact is though that in some major cases that wasn't good enough. The ambition simply was not set sufficiently high to satisfy the passengers . To them "We are doing our best" was inadequate.

Verdict: More thinking, planning and a more dynamic approach are required, along with some more de-icing kit and people.  Lots more people and information and curculating amongst the passengers too.  Volunteer,- directed if need be, -managers from the nearby headquarters buildings need to be trained in the arts of giving empathetic and supportive customer service and helping people with problems. That's what service businesses should be all aboutand any that are not should fail. Every available person needs to rally and help man the front line pumps and jump from their beds if required. Managements can not afford not to be seen to be sharing the pain of staff and passengers alike (and bin the awful and inappropriate word "customer" once and for all) . They need to be seen to care passionately about those who have chosen to buy their product. "Ring this number" or "Write in" is an unacceptable answer to people to whom the promise of being safely, courteously and punctually transported from A to B is already not being met. The managements of the key players at Heathrow need to heed Anthony Jenkins, the new CEO of Barclays Bank who said in a message to staff on 17th January: "There might be some who don't feel they can fully buy into an approach which so squarely links (our)performance to the upholding of our values. My message to them is (this) is not the place for you" . Follow that Heathrow.

Footnote: The quick switching to other flights or airlines of passengers whose flights have been cancelled has become much more difficult with the abandonment of paper tickets, the grouping of many airlines into alliances and the loss of many overall or local interline agreements.  In most cases in the bad old days of IATA paper tickets anybody rushing up to a competitors' checkin desk in situations like these could be accepted if there were seats available and the paperwork sorted out later. With no piece of paper to wave about ,the answer will now too often be "Computer says No". Not what anyone in a hurry wants to hear on a snowy night.

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