Written by Misc

Snow Chaos

Read any paper, or turn on any television at the moment, and you’ll see nothing but stories of chaos caused by the snow. Heathrow is still a mess, several days after the last snow. It’s all the fault of the Spanish owned BAA (I’m not quite sure why the fact that it’s Spanish owned is so important, but it’s regularly mentioned). Whereas Gatwick, which isn’t owned by BAA because it was sold a year ago, is doing much better.
But is that really the whole story?
I’ve no doubt that communication could be better, and BAA could invest lots more in snow vehicles, but it seems to me that there are a few other things at play. Heathrow’s a hub airport, whereas Gatwick isn’t. We Brits might think of Heathrow and Gatwick as essentially interchangeable, but for onwards travellers, it’s a transit airport. It’s much larger, and is full of planes most of the time.
Last night on Channel 4 News, they showed a graphic (4′ 26″ into this piece) that compared the snow vehicles of three of the major European airports to demonstrate how underprepared Heathrow is. Except that looking at the numbers, it didn’t look that bad a comparison to me.
Heathrow handles 66m passengers with 69 snow vehicles. That’s 1.0 snow vehicles per million passengers.
Charles de Gaulle handles 60m passengers with 74 vehicles: 1.2 snow vehicles per million passengers.
Frankfurt handles 51m passengers with 60 vehicles: 1.2 snow vehicles per million passengers.
So while the other airports do perform better, but not that much better. If Paris had twice the kit per passenger, then I’d be impressed, but 20% doesn’t seem so significant.
Aside from climatic changes, I’d argue that the real reason that there’s been so much chaos is because passenger numbers continue to grow significantly. Once upon a time, relatively few people would have attempted to travel abroad at Christmas. Now many more seek winter sun, or visit friends and family by air.
The CAA publishes a document called Aviation Trends, and the chart below is reproduced from their Q3 10 report.
Passenger Chart
Although in the last couple of years, there’s been an overall drop in passenger numbers as the recession bites, it’s still pretty clear that passenger numbers have grown by around 20% in the last ten years. That’s a lot more people to handle.
Could our airports and infrastructure do better? Yes. Am I making excuses for those who run our airports? Absolutely not. But I still think the screaming headlines in our papers and on our television are a bit unfair. And I do speak as someone who missed out on their big holiday of the year when an Icelandic volcano erupted.
Roy Greenslade is worth a read on a similar subject.