Heathrow needs decisive capacity fix

January 21, 2013

By Chris Hughes

The author is a Reuters Breakingviews columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.

Heathrow spent more than 36 million pounds on improving its snow defences after the chaos in 2010. The result? More bad publicity for London’s hub airport when this winter’s first blizzards hit. Heathrow’s operational upgrades have failed to address the fundamental problems it faces.

The latest debacle – with pictures of stranded passengers sleeping on terminal floors – underscore Heathrow’s core difficulty. The airport normally runs at near-full capacity. So there is no slack when things go wrong.

Two years ago, Heathrow struggled to clear snow from runways while its airlines had difficulties de-icing planes. This time, investment in advanced snow ploughs helped keep the airport operational. But there were still problems with de-icing the planes. Critically, there were cancellations because poor visibility necessitates greater intervals between flights. With no extra runway capacity, Heathrow’s only option was to ground flights.

The best way of managing this problem would be to lower customer expectations. The message would have to be conveyed loud and clear. The price of running lots of flights in “ordinary” weather is inevitable disruption when snow hits. Unfortunately, Heathrow’s recent investment has only raised expectations. Even when passengers were forewarned of cancellations this weekend, many still turned up hoping for the best or at least seeking – quite rationally – to grab pole position in the queue when flights resumed.

A second solution is to build a third runway while exercising the discipline to utilise only some of the extra capacity to meet day-to-day demand. But the current government has blocked the idea of extending the west London site, although it faces continued pressure from the business lobby to change tack.

The radical option is to operate the existing infrastructure at lower capacity. This would give Heathrow a cushion against disruptive events. True, it would risk a damaging knock-on effect for London and the UK economy. But the severity of that outcome would depend on whether passengers modified their behaviour and used London’s other less-crowded airports. Public policy could play a role in improving the local alternatives. The business impact on Heathrow, meanwhile, could be mitigated by charging airlines more.

It’s hardly an attractive solution – but it is the most economically realistic.

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