Gatwick boss wants Heathrow to cut number of flights in winter months

Stewart Wingate has written to transport secretary in bid to avoid the chaos at UK’s biggest airport “due to small amounts of snow”

The boss of Gatwick airport has called for caps on the number of flights at Heathrow to avoid disruption to passengers in what he called “normal winter weather conditions” after hundreds of departures were cancelled at the UK’s major hub over the last four days.

Chief executive Stewart Wingate wrote to the transport secretary, Patrick McLoughlin, asking for a meeting to bring together London’s three main airports to work out how to avoid the chaos at Heathrow “due to small amounts of snow”.

Wingate said: “It just cannot be right that passengers are being asked to accept apologies for pre-emptive flight cancellations. Huge numbers of business meetings and holidays will have been impacted and misery caused to travellers. The over-scheduling of flights at Heathrow during the winter period should stop.

“I am proposing that for the key winter months of December, January and February Heathrow declares a level of capacity it can cope with in winter conditions. The additional flights then, for those three months, can move to Gatwick and Stansted.”

Thousands of passengers have seen their flights disrupted at Heathrow by the weather and there is some acknowledgement that flight cancellations came too late.

When winter bites at Heathrow it means one thing: a meeting of the damned. “They’re damned if they do, or damned if they don’t cancel hundreds of flights,” as one ex-airport insider put it.

Heathrow’s demand and capacity balancing group (Hadacab) decided last Thursday to press ahead without general cuts to flights which saw many passengers boarding planes on Friday that never took off, causing many hours of frustration. After that, a meeting on Saturday saw 20% of the following day’s flights cancelled, and about 120 of Monday’s flights were cancelled amid fears for visibility in forecast freezing fog.

At Monday’s midday meeting, with runways and taxiways clear, Hadacab decided against further cancellations for Tuesday.

Gatwick, with 5cm of snow, prides itself on not having cancelled any flights for its own operational reasons although airline troubles around Europe disrupted their schedules. London’s second airport puts this partly down to an £8m investment in snow-clearing machines that sweep the runway in 10 minutes, but mainly planning. A spokesperson said: “Snow is not an unexpected event. Everyone knows what their actions and responsibilities are and those plans went into place on Friday morning.”

Heathrow’s snow plans have been beefed up under an operations chief, Normand Boivin, headhunted in 2011 from Montreal airport, which sees over two metres of snowfall in an average winter. The airport also boasts £36m of new snow kit and claims to be the only one in the UK with a dedicated Met Office forecaster in residence.

But the overarching difference is that 10 minutes to sweep a runway is time that Heathrow does not have. Forced runway closures for clearance started the worst of Friday’s backlog: since, though, the runways and approaches have been clear. Visibility instead has been the bigger problem, with air traffic controllers requiring a bigger gap between planes landing or taking off. For an airport that operated last year at 99.2% capacity, a matter of seconds in each flight interval can cascade into long bottlenecks.

“Many airports have plenty of spare runway capacity so aircraft can be spaced out more during low visibility without causing delays and cancellations. Because Heathrow operates at almost full capacity, there is simply no room to reschedule the delayed flights,” a Heathrow spokesman said.

According to a boss of another UK airport, who once worked at the Heathrow coalface: “As soon as they say we’re clearing one runway, there is no resilience. You can close one of five runways at Amsterdam, but here, even for 20 minutes, it means they’ve gone bust. They’re in a very constrained environment, and to get these great big snow-clearing machines around the aircraft without hitting them or other units is a very tricky job. The de-icer will only last for half an hour or so and with gridlock on the taxiway, the whole thing becomes more and more complicated.”

Heathrow’s cancellation strategy is strongly dictated by British Airways, the largest carrier, which took much of the weekend flak. Early decisions to cancel have been compared favourably by some to the policy of London City airport, which only announced its decision to close altogether on Saturday in the afternoon.

Yet, most observers feel Heathrow has got its act together after its nadir in December 2010, when hundreds of thousands of passengers’ travel planes were disrupted by just one hour’s snowfall and more than 4,000 flights were cancelled over four days.But the fundamental problem is, as Heathrow admits, the sheer volume of planes. Given that snow is an annual winter event, has the airport taken on more than it can chew? The other airport boss sympathises: “Is it them being greedy or airlines wanting every ounce of capacity when they can? Either it turns away business every day, which would be crazy, or waits to deal with the problems that brings. It’s a tough call.”

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