Heathrow Airport Shutdown: What’s the Real Cause?

Why is five inches of snow shutting down London’s Heathrow airport? Because it’s more concerned with being a mall than plowing runways, writes aviation expert Clive Irving.

One airport sits at the center of Europe’s travel chaos, spreading its failures like a raging virus throughout the international routes—crippling trans-Atlantic flights, aborting connections throughout Europe and the Middle East and causing cancellations as far away as Sydney, Hong Kong, and Singapore. It’s the world’s busiest airport for international flights: London’s Heathrow. If you wanted to choose the perfect choke point to cripple the world’s air traffic, this is it.

As an example of basic strategic policy, you might think that, given its importance, the ability of Heathrow not simply to wreck the holiday travel plans of hundreds of thousands of people but to undermine economies, disrupt international air cargo and, most significantly, to visit disaster on the travel industry, plans would be in place to ensure that it can function after a five-inch snowfall. After all, terrorists would be delighted to have wrought such harm.

Prime Minister David Cameron has now even offered troops to help clear the runways.

Here we are, though, four days after the weekend shutdown of Heathrow and even now the airport is still barely functional.

And it’s all because the people in charge of Heathrow could not muster the resources to plow two runways and clear ice and snow from terminal gates—not exactly rocket science and something hundreds of airports have to face on a regular basis in winter. Prime Minister David Cameron has now even offered troops to help clear the runways.

The fundamental reason for this failure is hiding in plain sight—it’s not the runways, not the airplanes and not even the responsibility of the airlines operating out of Heathrow. The most telling clue lies in Terminal Five, which was purpose-built for British Airways. What do you see once you check-in? Not an airport terminal, but a shopping mall. There are two enormous floors with scores of stores, ranging from luxury franchises to electronics, Scottish whiskey and perfumes—as many perfume counters as you could imagine under one roof.

This happened because in the late 1980s the Brits realized that an airport could be an entirely new kind of profit center. What began as a so-called duty-free opportunity, a few stores selling highly taxed items like whiskey and cigarettes, suddenly expanded into a shopper’s honey trap, a perfect place for merchandise with its own captive audience, bored people waiting for a flight. The management of British airports was privatized and turned over to a company called the British Airports Authority—a name implying that it was a professional aviation manager and not, as it became by stealth, a business dominated by marketers.

Suddenly, every terminal at the two main London airports, Heathrow and Gatwick, was remodeled around the shopping mall. The airports were, in effect, re-purposed, and the actual management and running of a business centered on flying people rather than selling to them became secondary. In fact, this model became so lucrative that it was followed by other airports around the world—but never in a way that so strikingly distorted the management priorities.

As a result, the BAA became a prized, highly profitable business, much admired beyond the U.K. It caught the eye of an ambitious Spanish multinational—until then a specialist in building highways—called Ferrovial. In 2006 Ferrovial bought control of the BAA.

Then the problems really began. Passengers complained of poor maintenance, filthy toilets, chaotic security lines, and poor communications. The full realization of what Ferrovial was up to came in March, 2008, with the opening of Terminal 5. This supposed state-of-the art building, long delayed because of planning problems, was the scene of embarrassing systems failures in its first weeks—thousands of bags were lost, flights were delayed or canceled, and it became an infamous public-relations disaster for British Airways.

More thought had gone into burnishing the shopping mall, and providing top-end restaurant franchises, than in actually making sure that passengers would have a seamless experience from check-in to the gate.

After this debacle, the jackpot began to unravel for Ferrovial. So great was the criticism of their performance that the British government forced them to give up Gatwick, which they had to sell at a loss of around $400 million. That, in turned, left them determined to squeeze as much profit as possible out of those malls at Heathrow. The BAA chief executive, Colin Matthews, opened his heart to travelers this week on BBC radio: “It’s absolutely distressing and heart-breaking to have been in the terminals and confronted with individuals, each with their stories of really sad and disappointing outcomes.”

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Outcomes? While Ferrovial was loading up the Heathrow stores with all their Christmas goodies it hadn’t bothered to check whether it had enough plows to deal with two runways if, by chance, it happened to snow. Or enough de-icing fluid to get the airplanes out of the gates. Or anything else fundamental to fitness of mission. The cost of that negligence is almost incalculable.

The British government—and the body governing international air travel, IATA— need now to act, and fast. They must make sure that the priorities at Heathrow are not given to cashmere sweaters and single malt whiskies but to having an airport that works. People go to airports to fly.

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