BAA digs deep after copping it for snow woes

Heavily criticised by its own in-house report for its response to the pre-Christmas snow, BAA has promised to spend £50m getting its act together.

by James Taylor
Last Updated: 19 Aug 2013
The chaos at Heathrow before Christmas – the airport was closed for four days after heavy snow, leaving thousands of passengers stranded – was a disaster for operator BAA, both financially and reputationally. Now a report by one of its own directors has slammed its response to the situation, arguing that poor preparation and communication made the problem much worse than it should have been – as a result of which, BAA has pledged to invest £50m to make sure the fiasco doesn’t happen again. Better late than never, we suppose…

BAA commissioned this report (by independent director Professor David Begg) itself, so you could argue that it’s doing its best to learn from its mistakes. But in practice this was more of a pre-emptive strike: if it hadn’t launched its own enquiry, it may well have been subjected to a Government-led external one instead, which would presumably have been even more scathing. Still, Begg hasn’t pulled his punches: he argues that the impact of the weather was ‘not fully anticipated’; that there was a ‘low state of preparedness; that that the initial response was ‘not effective’, with the crisis management team not mobilised quickly enough and stand clearance rates too slow; and that there were ‘failures in communication and coordination’ within BAA, resulting in ‘confused and conflicting messages’ to airlines and passengers. So, pretty much everything then.

To be fair to BAA, the weather was unusually bad – the worst in 100 years, in fact – while Begg also argues that it has previously coped with extreme weather pretty well. However, the fact remains that other airports (e.g.Gatwick) seemed to cope an awful lot better. And although Heathrow faces more logistical issues than most (because of its size and congestion) something clearly went wrong somewhere. Episodes like this also add to the general impression that Heathrow has suffered from under-investment since the BAA airports takeover; an argument the 9,500 passengers who apparently spent the first night of the shut-down stranded in Heathrow (many without water or blankets) would certainly subscribe to.

So what exactly is BAA going to do about it? Well, the report makes 14 recommendations, lots of which are to do with improving planning and crisis management procedures. And then there’s that £50m, which been earmarked for snow-clearing machines (duh), additional staff, and improved passenger communications. These are all sensible steps. But it does rather seem like shutting the gate after the horse has bolted.

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