Wild Winter Weather – Heathrow Action Plan (04.03.18)

Every now and again the UK experiences excessive winter weather, driving the country’s infrastructure into a state of chaos. This past week has been one of those periods, as the combined forces of the Siberian ‘Beast from the East’ and Iberian ‘Storm Emma’ have wreaked havoc, and even caused deaths, across the British Isles, as well as the on the Continent.

As a UK based tour operator, it has been one heck of a busy week trying to keep our clients’ travel plans on schedule. We send more people abroad during this period than at any other time of the year, and clients’ travel plans have been affected to and from every continent.

Whenever we get extreme weather I am left asking myself who on earth would want to be a tour operator in times like this?

As the British travel infrastructure grinds to a frozen halt, airport closures remain the biggest bugbear. Imagine constantly trying to come up with ways to get a client’s travel itinerary back on track – or trying to ask an African safari camp for a refund for a customer stuck in a frozen airport 8,000 kms away. Often it’s impossible, and understandably so, as they will be unable to re-book the pre-paid services at such short notice.

Combine this with the fact that most travel insurances regard bad weather as a non-claimable ‘force-majeure’ issue. As the travel organiser the strength of your relationships with your client, local destination colleagues and chosen god can be very quickly tested to the limit.

For this reason, I have always been hugely appreciative of airports’ emergency winter weather clearance procedures. I am delighted that airports such as Heathrow appear so much better equipped for excessive winter weather these days. Under the airport’s Winter Resilience Programme, they have, since 2010, spent £11m on new vehicles and equipment, £10m on aircraft de-icer facilities, £8m on IT maps, tracking and CCTV, and £7m on an operations infrastructure and passenger welfare. Furthermore, the increase in staff support for such conditions has risen from 117 to 510 per shift.

When explained, it’s not rocket science: snow clearing vehicles cannot access a working runway, so flights have to be suspended as eleven runway sweepers clear snow on one runway, while the other remains operational. That takes thirty minutes, typically impacting on 15-20 flights. As Heathrow is the world’s busiest two runway airport, severe weather will inevitably lead to cancellations. The choice of how much of the flight schedule needs to be cut falls on representatives from Heathrow, NATS and the airlines themselves.

The airlines are responsible for de-icing their aircraft, and for the welfare of their passengers.

Responsibility for clearing stands, airside roads, taxiways and the runways falls on Heathrow. It’s a challenging job, especially when you consider that 10cm of snow, across the airfield, equates to 4,000 lorry loads (60,000 tonnes).

So, during this week’s blizzards, and having understood what is behind the airport’s winter weather team, I am even more appreciative that Heathrow did manage to get all our Nomadic Thoughts customers away on their holidays.

A big thank you to all those responsible for organising and driving the airport’s fleet of 34 tractor ploughs, 16 front-mounted gators, 15 runway sweepers, 14 combi de-icers, 9 taxiway de-icers, 9 multihogs, 8 compact jet sweepers, 8 ramp hogs, 4 fast track sweepers, 3 snow blowers, 3 gritters and however many tea urns.