European Travel Breakdown: Why the Technology Needs to Change

Blizzards have frozen Europe’s planes, trains, and automobiles, stranding thousands during the holidays. Aviation expert Clive Irving on how travelers are being kept in the dark.

There is an unprecedented breakdown of the travel infrastructure in Europe.

In fact, it has failed. And travelers familiar with winter conditions in the U.S. are asking why. For example, a snowfall at Heathrow no higher than ankle depth closed down the airport for two days and even today it is barely functioning, with British Airways canceling all its short-haul flights. Both airports in Paris were closed, and Frankfurt is badly crippled. These are the three most crucial hubs in Europe and when they shut down the ripple effect spreads wide.

Train services are sporadic: even the usually impervious French TGV highspeed services are operating at reduced speeds and frequency. Many roads throughout Europe are impassable—Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales are particularly stricken. (The minister for transport in Scotland was fired after critics said he didn’t seem aware that Scandinavian winters were becoming normal there.)

This is a nightmare Christmas for air travelers. Relationships between passengers and airlines are at rock bottom. Heathrow’s “showpiece” Terminal Five, from which most British Airways flights operate, has resembled a refugee camp with passengers sleeping wherever they can. Thousands of bags have been lost.

Conditions that would be effectively dealt with in Chicago or New York are overwhelming European airports. All of London’s satellite airports—Gatwick, Luton, Stansted, and London City each have only one runway, and it should have been easy to keep them operating. Yet the combination of ice and snow seemed to surprise the airport operators.

This is Europe’s third severe winter in a row. Climate has significantly become more extreme and severe (colder winters, steaming summers), and yet politicians seem in denial, and fail to upgrade the resources, even though the economic costs of the breakdown far exceed the costs of being equipped to deal with the weather.

Heathrow’s “showpiece” Terminal Five, from which most British Airways flights operate, has resembled a refugee camp with passengers sleeping wherever they can.

And this time, one thing is particularly striking: At a time when most travelers are tech-fluent, using cell phones and tablets for actionable, current information, airline and airport websites are still stuck in the 1980s. Take, for example, the home page of the British Airports Authority, which runs Heathrow. There is no big picture guidance—you still have to search for individual flight numbers. (BAA is majority owned by the Spanish company Ferrovial, which has a record of negligence.) Airline call centers have seized up, and websites are desperately warning passengers not to leave for the airport without being able to provide real time information on any flights. Even with political will, it will take time to upgrade the material resources needed to cope (in the case of 19th-century railway systems, years) but there is no excuse for the absence of timely and comprehensive emergency websites where travelers can go to see the complete picture, and respond accordingly.

The most valuable commodity in any emergency like this is information. A great deal of misery could be avoided by the collaboration of all those involved— airlines, airports, rail operators, and hotel owners—and the creation of one “go to” source. Right now it’s an information white-out.

Clive Irving is senior consulting editor at Conde Nast Traveler, specializing in aviation. Find his blog, Clive Alive, at CliveAlive.Truth.Travel.