Op-Ed: Twin winter disruptions show holes in airline IROPS plans

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Another month, another major international airport with airline operations falling apart after routine winter weather, and another set of resigned shrugs from airline insiders and observers who don’t expect the airlines and airports concerned to take any meaningful action to fix the problems. Aviation can — and must — do better.

In December, British Airways’ London Heathrow operations ground to a halt following some light snow. This happens with monotonous regularity, although having the editor of Air Transport World, Karen Walker, caught up in the situation is unusual. The story of Walker’s experience, and the lessons she asks airlines and airports to learn from it, should be required reading for airline operations and planning staff.

This week, New York JFK Airport was hit by a winter snowstorm with some moderate snow and cold temperatures, suspending airport operations on Friday with massive knock-on disruption throughout Saturday and Sunday. Flights continue to divert, are being held on the tarmac for hours, and are disgorging passengers into the terminal to find chaos in arrivals, while departing passengers are reporting a lack of information or staff to assist them during the disruption.

A common thread seems to be the inability of staff to get to work during inclement weather, which does not seem like a particularly persuasive excuse, nor is equipment being unable to function at temperatures that are experienced every few years.

Plainly, both these sets of experiences are unacceptable.

Both the Heathrow and JFK weather events were, unlike many of the externalities to which aviation is exposed, both predictable and predicted, with more than enough time to activate an irregular operations (IROPS) plan. Neither was outside the weather envelope for the time of year, but some disruption was of course to be expected — though not to the extent seen.

Airlines hold overall responsibility for their passengers’ experience, and carriers operating to these airports, let alone those with major hub operations there, should have robust IROPS plans for this kind of usual winter weather.

At both JFK and Heathrow, and across practically every airline, these plans did not show evidence of activating adequate staff at the airport, ensuring that the airline website, social media team and call centres are prepared and well-resourced, or wherever possible — in the era of metal-neutral joint ventures and airline alliances — proactively rerouting passengers away from expected trouble zones both to reduce the number of people caught up in any likely disruption and to free up seats for rebooking during the peak holiday season in the context of historically high load factors.

BA’s Heathrow operation, as it has before, melted down, as Karen Walker outlined so succinctly. The airline’s customer service failed abysmally to provide the service promised by its advertising, and even by its chief executive.

Notes ATW editor Karen Walker after her experience with British Airways, “my colleague Victoria Moores was at an Aero Club lunch in London last week where BA CEO Alex Cruz was the speaker. Victoria points out that Cruz repeatedly said that BA was different because it will look after you when things go wrong.”

At JFK, even two days after the snow stopped, passengers from airline after airline continue to post to their social media about two-day delays, conflicting or incorrect information, absent staff, missed connections, baggage halls (and ramp areas) full of luggage. Videos show passengers chanting their airline’s name, seemingly to try to force its aircraft to be given the next available gate, and police officers trying to calm down groups of understandably irate travellers.

Commercial aviation, and particularly British Airways, London Heathrow, New York JFK, the airport operators, and the carriers that operate there, need to get their houses in order.

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Governments will take action in response to high-profile airline incidents, have done so before, and they are right to do so if the industry continues to treat passengers shabbily.

All it may take is a celebrity like Chrissy Teigen livetweeting an incident for the perfect storm of circumstances to drive legislators to legislate. In the US alone, the 2009 DOT tarmac delay rule, the 2013 FAA 1500 hours rule, and other substantial changes to the landscape in which airlines operate make that very clear.

Airlines also need to be aware that they are, to put it mildly, not universally loved, and that they need public goodwill for projects like adding a runway to Heathrow Airport, or if they want governments to intervene positively in the industry.

Airlines, and not passengers, hold the cards in the various relationships with airports, ground handlers, and outstation service companies. The buck stops with the carrier.

It is up to those airlines to ensure that the contracts into which they enter, and they way they themselves organise their operations, are adequate for the passenger experience that they are selling with their tickets — and that their CEOs are promising too.

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