Why is Heathrow airport so bad at snow?

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heathrow snow afp AFP An Air Canada plane taxies on the snowy runway at Heathrow airport in west London on January 21, 2013 after the airport announced further flight cancellations due to adverse weather.

London - Everyone in Britain talks constantly about the weather, observed an American visitor, who added: ‘But no one does anything about it.’

Good joke, but no one’s laughing.

How can a smattering of snow cause the cancellation of hundreds of flights and the temporary homelessness of thousands when, in countries with winters more harsh than our own, aviation continues without difficulty?

No one can explain it. Each year, we greet snow as if it was falling for the first time. Good lord, what is that cold, wet, slippery white stuff? Sometimes, we blame forecasters for not warning us. At other times, snow-clearance equipment is blamed. Mostly it’s just hopeless excuses.

As a nation we mulishly refuse to take seriously inconveniences to the travelling public.This year, Heathrow officials from the management company and the airlines have at least got their story straight, instead of falling out among themselves as they’ve done in the past.

Their spiel goes like this: The airport is working at about 98 percent of its capacity. Poor visibility as well as snow-clearing on the two runways slows down arrivals and departures. Safety is paramount. So some flights must be cancelled. We apologise to passengers for any inconvenience.

On Friday, 440 flights were cancelled. A further 111 were abandoned on Saturday. Perhaps I missed it, but I heard no explanation from them as to why it was necessary to hold some passengers for seven hours on a plane which didn’t take off - then return them to the terminal to sleep on the floor, or to organise hotels for themselves.

Personally, I felt lucky. The Virgin Atlantic 747 on which I was a passenger took only seven hours 20 minutes to fly 4,400 miles from Miami, averaging more than ten miles a minute. But we were held in a stack (flying in circles) over Heathrow because snow had begun to fall. Although we didn’t catch sight of the ground until the runway hove into view through the snow flurries, our landing was smooth, the baggage came up quickly and we were clear of the airport in under an hour.

We were luckier than a passenger headed for Las Vegas, who told Radio 4 his flight was cancelled after waiting on the tarmac for six hours. Everyone on the plane was then taken off but the passengers were not able to reclaim their baggage. Having spent Friday night in a nearby hotel, he returned to the airport on Saturday morning only to be told that he couldn’t have his bag until Sunday.

Is this acceptable? Surely not.

On Sunday, flights were coming and going normally from Gatwick, but Heathrow cancelled 20 percent of its traffic. Again it was stressed that the snow meant more time was needed between flights, which, because they were working at ‘near capacity’, meant cancellations. No one is saying as much, but the message is clear enough - Heathrow needs another runway.

Are aviation officials dragging their heels during this spell of bad weather in order to force the public to come to the same conclusion, pushing the Government to change its policy? I doubt they are that cynical. But expanding Heathrow is a political question. The Labour government agreed to a third runway, but the Tory opposition - to please constituents in West London - came out against any more development of Heathrow. Now they’re stuck with that decision, at least until the 2015 election.

Would a third runway solve the long-running public grievance that is Heathrow Airport? Maybe not. A third runway might also be working at near capacity before long. We need expansion of all London airports, but which politician in a position to move this subject on will risk his or her career saying so? Those who travel regularly and have experienced the full horror of cancelled flights, imprisonment on stalled planes, irretrievable luggage and sleeping on terminal floors, can and do rage against the collective failure of aviation officialdom to do anything much more than wring their hands.

But for every individual who rages, there might be ten or more who don’t care, who think too much fuss is made by those who fly regularly. Indeed, many are positively scornful of travellers’ trauma. My old Scottish grannie was one of them. She would say after hearing of some calamity at sea, or in the air: ‘Aye, well they’d no business being there.’ - Daily Mail


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