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

Rotation

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.

Rotation
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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15 Comments

  1. Dan

    “In December, British Airways’ London Heathrow operations ground to a halt following some light snow.”

    That’s one way of downplaying, and falsifying, what actually occured. First, the forecast was inaccurate, it predicted some light sleet. What occured was a torrential downpour of rain which rendered pre-emptive anti-icing ineffective as it was washed off aircraft surfaces. Second, a prolonged moderate snow fall occured instead of the sleet. HAL hadn’t preemptively cut flow rates and forced schedule reductions so an airport that runs at 99% of capacity now had 100% of flights planned but with a reduction in capacity of near 25%. It was never going to work. There was more at play than just a “light snow”.

    “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.”

    Not pursuasive? People literally died in road accidents on the day of the Heathrow mess, yet it’s not pursuasive? Should all airport and airline workers be housed in hotel accommodation during potential disruption or what?

    Plus equipment malfunctions. Even these days people have trouble getting their cars started and running in freezing temperatures. Motorised airport equipment is not immune to that either.

    “should have robust IROPS plans for this kind of usual winter weather.”

    So what would your IROPS plan entail? Your turn to be CEO – aside from paying overtime to customer service agents and call centre staff, which might not even be taken up, what practical steps would you take to add resilience to an operation that struggles when there are no negative external factors due to capacity constraints? It’s all well and good moaning but suggest some practical changes.

    “Victoria points out that Cruz repeatedly said that BA was different because it will look after you when things go wrong.”

    The operation returned to normal quite swiftly. Passengers where appropriate were compensated and/or rebooked. Compare that with the experience of essyJet and Ryanair passengers at Stsnsted a few days later.

    “Governments will take action in response to high-profile airline incidents”

    The most appropriate actiom would be constructing more runwayd and parking stands. Much easier to impose fines for uncontrollable events though, isn’t it?

    Look forward to hearing your suggestions for improving resilience during IROPS when none exists under normal ops.

    • John Walton

      Hi Dan, and thanks for your comments.

      I recall — and newspaper reports at the time suggest — a different meteorological situation, but even if the situation is as you describe, if sleet is forecast then surely a bit of snow (light or moderate) would not be outwith the realms of planning and expectation.

      Regardless, arguing about *why* operations melted down is less my point than that disruption was forecast, and airline contingency plans should have included dealing with customers in a better way than actually happened, which is a repeat of pretty much every other British Airways Heathrow IROPS we’ve seen since T5 opened. The “why we’re in this hole” is, in other words, less importance than “how we’re going to get out”, not least because many of the externalities aviation faces are not predictable.

      On your point about staff having trouble getting to work, my sympathies are with the staff and my criticism is with the company. There are of course a number of ways to ensure key operational staff are in position during disruption. Many businesses provide operational staff with a portfolio of options, not all of which include hotel accommodation. Indeed, BA’s Waterside headquarters is, what, 1500m away from T5? Is there no option to convert offices to temporary hot-bunks for staff, or bring in touring-style coaches for accommodation? Further, Heathrow has how many public transportation options? BA could easily put in place a disruption allowance that could include staying with friends and family close to a public transportation option like the Tube, Heathrow Connect/Express, or the GWML, just to start with.

      Re: equipment malfunctions, it doesn’t strike me as acceptable from a business continuity point of view that key pieces of operational kit don’t function in normal, forecast seasonal temperatures. Equipment is definitely available that works when it is cold, especially since we’re talking about London, not Iqaluit.

      Practical changes could relatively simply include, as I said: ensuring that the airline website, social media team and call centres are prepared and well-resourced, and 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. This latter option neatly adds the resilience that you say is not available at Heathrow.

      You may be correct that there are zero options for resilience during normal operations, although I suspect that there are at the very least options around equipment redundancy and procurement, let alone process improvement and staffing. If BA doesn’t have the ability to increase its customer service channel capacity to an adequate level during IROPS, then quite frankly it is negligent. Many other businesses — and indeed airlines — seem able to cope with disruption. And based on the experience Karen Walker and many others outlined, the responsibilities of “where appropriate” compensation, rebooking, and duty of care were not discharged well, nor to the standard required, nor to the promises made by BA and its CEO.

      I agree with you that Heathrow needs to be expanded. But I think we all know that the industry needs to persuade people that it’s necessary. Continuing to have multiple BA-at-Heathrow meltdowns every year is about as persuasive to decision-makers and other stakeholders as Alex Cruz wearing a hi-viz tabard in the office on YouTube.

      • Dan

        Thanks for your considered reply, John.

        Sleet is a very different beast to snow. Sleet will typically never result in snow accumulation is not frozen prior to making contact with the ground or surfaces of objects on the ground. Typically it occurs when the surface temperature remains above freezing. So sleet is not a problem. What is a problem is heavy rain, washing away any pre-emptive deicing, which was at least attempted, followed by a moderate snow fall. Just 25 miles away Gatwick received no snow. That was how changeable and unpredictable the situation was.

        With regards to staffing levels, I am not aware of any flights being cancelled because of a lack of flight crew or cabin crew – I know for a fact that several flights left with an extra pilot in order to extend their duty limits after the delays encountered. As for whether extra customer service agents could have been drafted in will, I’m sure, be a point for future discussion. As I’m sure you’re well versed, T&Cs will be closely guarded by unions and these staff groups are unlikely to be able.to be compelled into work. However, given the disruption affected tens of thousands of passengers a handful of extra staff, although welcome, is possibly unlikely to have made a huge difference. The solution is likely to be technology based rather than human/labour based. I’ll come on to that. But as for Waterside, it’s permit is as an office/workplace. Building regulations and laws mean that using it as a temporary accommodation centre would be illegal.

        The technology for rebooking – I believe the BA app is either supposed to, or will soon be able to, rebook passengers on disruptive services to the next available flight automatically. This would relieve a huge workload for front line staff and call centre staff. When this service becomes automated and customers can acknowledge/accept changes via email and/or SMS then that will be a huge step forward in the process. Despite the criticism he receives, it’s this kind of technological solution that Alex Cruz champions. I know that downroute reroutes onto Iberia, Aer Lingus and American did occur. These may not have been as common as people might have liked but all of those airlines were operating with high load factors and space was severely limited.

        Can you expand upon what equipment failed? I am not aware of any instances of malfunctioning equipment. The entire process could be improved dramatically if Heathrow had the space to carry out remote de-icing – unfortunately on stand de-icing is less efficient, takes longer and requires a lot more processes to come together at the same time. Unfortunately Heathrow has a very small area footprint for the number of passengers it handles and does not have the space. The stand plan is also incredibly tight – as soon as departures are delayed there are insufficient stands for inbound arrivals. The physical constraints at Heathrow means any disruption is magnified. So while as though it may appear other airlines cope well with disruption (several meltdowns elsewhere may perhaps argue otherwise!) The physical constraints mean it’s far easier to deal with.

        I’m not making excuses though. Any time the response falla short it’s unacceptable but there are mitigating circumstances and the fixes are not as straight forward as they may first appear. Unfortunately, until Heathrow expands its runway capacity and aircraft parking provision the best solutiom going forward will be pre-emptive cancellations.

        However, credit where it’s due, Heathrow and BA returned to normal inside 48 hours. Other disruptions elsewhere within the last year or so have taken far longer to recover from. Delta’s computer meltdown and Atlanta power outage, the Unitef computer outage, the NY snows (granted they were on an unprecidented level).

        Lessons will be learned, but this was Heathrow’s first snow fall for about 5 years. It’s not a common occurence.

  2. Gerard Plourde

    The reason that these inefficiencies exist is the fact that the airlines’ primary mission is profit for their investors rather than service to their customers.

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