How big is an airport?

I’m hugely sympathetic to snow and ice closures in large, complex systems. I can imagine that the cost of replacing the entire third rail system used on much of the south-eastern rail lines makes little sense in relation to the handful of extra days of operation it would provide over its life. There’s no use having salt and gritters available if you haven’t got the operators as well, or can’t get the operators to the equipment.

These are at least rational arguments, though rarely understood.

But an airport? A couple of miles of tarmac? Surely that can be kept clear? I’ve just seen this morning that “although the airfield is operational, BA have cancelled all Heathrow flights…” I really feel for my friends today who are having to rearrange travel plans in the tight window before Christmas.

We can easily compare what we think of as Heathrow airport – a couple of miles of tarmac – with, say, Moscow, or Washington DC – a couple of miles of tarmac. Planes land there all the time in snow; the snow just gets ploughed away. But perhaps within that phrase “airfield is operational” lies a clue?

Because an airport isn’t just that strip of tarmac. It’s support staff, handlers, fuellers, fire fighters, controllers, yada yada yada. It’s passenger transit systems, road networks and car parks; perhaps it’s not that sensible to fill up an airport with people if they might be stuck there for ages? Its virtual footprint is rather larger than the perimeter fence – certainly larger than the actual physical runway and taxiing areas.

So I can construct a rational narrative which says – “because we can’t access all the resources we need to operate this airport safely, and because of the extremely high probability of substantial inconvenience to passengers should they come to the airport” we’re closing it.

In truth, I can’t construct a rational one which says “because of 5cm of snow on our runway, we’ve shut the airport all day”. Yet without context, this is how the message this morning is playing out. Making everyone involved look stupid or incompetent.

Come on BA, BAA and the rest of you – don’t be afraid to talk about systems. The lack of a decent message is the unforgiveable thing here – not necessarily the suspension of flights.

Treat us like grown-ups. It’ll help us all, you know.

UPDATE 11:40, 18 December

Reports are coming in that the disruption today is confined only to BA flights at Heathrow. Does this provide further evidence for a system-level cause, or is it really just a suicidal level of incompetence from a company that doesn’t care about its reputation or passengers? I’m still inclined towards the former – YMMV.

But I spotted another interesting clue: that due to the massively complex and crammed schedule that BA operates at Heathrow, the minor delays to individual flights caused by the snow and ice would quickly magnify and lead to a general level of chaos. (Sadly, I can’t now trace the tweet giving that insight).

If true, it’s a very interesting illustration of what happens when systems run close to capacity. I remember something similar when fog caused what seemed like a disproportionate level of disruption to flights. The short increase in time due to aircraft having to move more slowly on the ground caused havoc, because – with a schedule of flights taking off every 90 seconds or so – there were simply not enough gaps in which those additional seconds could be absorbed.

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One Response

  1. Anonymous says:

    BA released a statement read on the Today Program on Radio 4 this morning – that they’re such a big operator out of Heathrow that even minor delays cause massive knock on issues. This isnt the case for smaller operators out of Heathrow.

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