Last weekend there was a huge snowstorm in my home town of Minneapolis. This was newsworthy mostly for the fact that the Metrodome roof caved in, causing all of my friends in the UK to think of Minneapolis, which they had never really heard of before, as the place where large engineering objects fall apart unexpectedly–first the bridge, now the dome. (If you haven’t seen the snow-dome-collapse viral video on youtube it’s highly recommended…) The Minnesota Vikings had to play a “home” game in Detroit last Monday, and they are playing their final home game of the year tomorrow at the University of Minnesota football stadium, which is open-air and thus had to be shoveled out this week by an army of volunteers.
Yesterday, there was a snowstorm in Britain. NB I did not say a “huge” snowstorm. Where I am we only saw an inch, maybe an inch and a half. The official snow total at Heathrow airport was 9 cm. So a few inches. Minnesota, in contrast, got 17 inches in their storm. At Heathrow, temperatures after the snowfall “plummeted” to -5C/23F. In Minnesota, temperatures really did plummet as windchills got down to -40F (I can’t find the actual low temperature but you get the point). The airport serving the Twin Cities, MSP, actually closed for a few hours for one of the few times in recent memory. British airports mostly all closed down, including Heathrow and Gatwick. But that was yesterday. This morning I woke up to the news that Heathrow was still closed. And in the last few hours it’s become clear that this might take quite some time to sort out. Gatwick is apparently up and running, but Heathrow–the British Airways flagship airport with the brand new 5th Terminal–is not. Hmmm.
As a frequent traveller, and someone who takes frequent trips on BA out of Heathrow, I’ve been watching this with a great deal of interest. As of yesterday it was clear that the actual runway was not the problem, which is in stark contrast to the MSP closure. The Heathrow website has had variations on this message posted all day:
This morning, we listened carefully to the advice of our airside operations team and reluctantly judged that while Heathrow’s northern runway remains clear, the change in temperature overnight led to a significant build up of ice on parking stands around the planes and this requires parts of the airfield to remain closed until it is safe to move planes around.
So let’s recap, the snow cleared out late yesterday afternoon, the runway is clear, but not a single gate at Heathrow is in use or can be used. Heathrow now seems to be saying that delays and cancellations will last well into the week. Apparently 200,000 people were due to go through Heathrow today. Via Twitter I just saw that over a hundred flights have landed at Gatwick and over a hundred flights have departed Gatwick. Wait a minute….
I admit it: I simply find it implausible that they could not have cleared out even a single gate at Heathrow and started to try and move a few flights in and out, assuming what they say about the runway is correct. (And I believe it is: why would Gatwick’s runway be able to function when Heathrow a mere 44 miles away could not?) Something else is going on. And I want to know what it is. Did BAA and/or BA decide that the only way to avoid melee was to make everyone suffer equally by canceling all flights? Do they really not have the equipment and know-how to resume partial operations more than 24 hours after a relatively minor snow storm? I’ve seen excuses flying around all day on Twitter about how the UK does not normally get weather like this and thus is not prepared when it comes, but that sounds a little hollow in my ears since the last major snowstorm here was… two weeks ago. And last year the country was crippled for weeks by snow. You can say what you like about this being unusual, but apparently this is the third year in a row of this type of weather, are the bosses running operations at Heathrow just hoping after each storm that it’s the last for a while, so they don’t have to get the proper equipment for dealing with snow and cold weather? Weather patterns shift. There was a time (Victorian times, to be precise) when you could ice skate on the Thames. Perhaps this IS normal English winter weather and the previous mild years were the anomaly. Perhaps it’s time to stop pretending that the climate here is tropical and to work on snow and winter preparedness, which are clearly things that can be done because of the simple proof-by-existence of airports that function in the winter in places like Minnesota. Yes, that might cost money. But so too must being one of the world’s busiest airports and being closed for several days the week of Christmas.
It will be interesting to watch this play out in the next few days. I have several friends due to travel trans-Atlantically tomorrow, and my fingers are crossed for them. I’ve been watching travel sagas playing out on Twitter today, where a popular move appeared to be taking the Eurostar to Paris for much better odds of taking off from there. Should we take bets on whether they get a reasonable set of Heathrow flights back to normal before Christmas? (I’m guessing not, if they could not do anything at all today.) Do we find BA to be the most beleaguered airline of 2010? (Most definitely: between the cabin crew strikes, the volcano and this…) Do we have serious qualms about a country in which the flagship airport housing the flagship national carrier in a flagship brand-new terminal has such problems with a few inches of snow and temperatures barely below freezing? (Yes, duh.) Do we wonder what’s really going on here? (Super-duh.) Stay tuned for updates in the soap opera saga that is winter in Britain, where apparently after each snowfall clears up, amnesia sets in such that no lessons are learned for the next time the white stuff starts coming out of the sky.