/ Travel & Leisure

Heathrow should communicate better in a crisis

Man sleeping at airport

UK airports have had a testing year, closing due to heavy snow at the start of 2010, then the Icelandic ash cloud. So shouldn’t Heathrow be better prepared to communicate with passengers during this big freeze?

Heathrow has resembled a refugee camp over the past few days as more and more passengers have been stranded.

Its second runway has now reopened, but it will be several days before the backlog of flights gets sorted out, and passengers finally get to where they need to go.

How reliable is Heathrow?

According to Heathrow’s statistics, the airport usually meets its targets for things such as flight information and wayfinding. I’ve used Heathrow many times, and to be fair, I haven’t experienced huge problems. Yes, the check-in and security queues can be slow and long, but they are the responsibility of the airlines and the Department for Transport.

But in the last Which? airport survey (in 2009), Heathrow terminals 1-4 achieved lower customer scores among members than any other UK airport. On a typical day, things tend to work relatively smoothly. But not every day is typical, and it’s vitally important that airports set up well-rehearsed crisis contingency plans.

As it happens, two weeks ago I asked a Heathrow official what crisis management structure they have in place to cope with the effects of snow. I was reassured that they employ numerous volunteers as well as office staff who can be dispatched to help out at the terminals as soon as a crisis materialises.

So were there enough staff and did they know what to do? It appears not when you hear of passengers’ woes. The worst thing of all is the lack of information. From the outset, BAA did ask people to check with their airline before arriving at the airport, but there seems to have been a complete failure of communication for people already at the airport.

Other airports need to improve

But frustrations aren’t confined to Heathrow. My colleague was at Luton on Saturday, expecting to take a flight to Tenerife. At the departure lounge, there was no indication of the flight being cancelled (which it was), nor at the departure gate, or even a tannoy announcement.

She struggled to locate her luggage and there were no staff around to answer queries or help. Finally, an hour later, she found an official who told her all flights were cancelled and she would have to get a refund or rebook.

I know that these Arctic conditions have been unusually severe for London, and that passengers may not be prepared to pay higher airport taxes in return for more snow-clearing resources. But please, just let us passengers know what is going on while we’re in limbo!