More than any other mode of transportation, aviation is significantly affected by weather conditions including fog, thunderstorms, snowstorms, and wind as well as temperature and pressure extremes (Iyengar, 2002). Kulesa (2010) notes two major adverse effects of weather on aviation which are its impact on safety and efficiency of operation. The aviation industry must regularly deal with adverse types of weather to enhance safety while attempting to maintain integrity of flight schedules and to rein in on costs attendant to disruption, a significant budget item in aviation (Qualley, 2009).
Weather disruptions at London’s Heathrow Airport in recent years have highlighted vulnerability in the industry. Of note was the adverse snow condition on December 18, 2010an exceptional event with unprecedented volume and speed of snow fall (AOA, 2013; DoT, 2013). This condition was compounded by capacity constraints and consequent lack of operational contingency since Heathrow operates at 99% capacity daily and the pre-Christmas period usually has high customer volumes (DoT, 2013; Seabury, 2012). The challenges of the day highlight prevalent problems and potential damage of weather-related disruption.
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There was however misjudgement among stakeholders on the severity of prediction and actual weather conditions. In the confusion, Heathrow claimed ‘business as usual’ while BA (its largest carrier) cancelled its schedule. Media reports of continued operations even after eventual closure of airport also undermined the decisive action taken by BA and thousands of passengers continued to turn up for cancelled flights creating chaos (UK Parliament, 2011). The command and control structure was not employed proactively or efficiently (Seabury, 2012).
Overall, the airport failed to recover as quickly as it could have done and the impact of the day was extended unnecessarily. BA’s extensive and refined contingency plans for recovery following disruption were not replicated by Heathrow airport and were thus not useful (UK Parliament, 2011; Kulesa, 2010). A lack of forward planning and lack of shared operational experience about the most effective approach for return to efficient regular operations was evident when the airport re-opened (DoT, 2013). Major emphasis was put on the opening of the runway without regard to the taxiway, apron and stand infrastructure which are also essential for efficient airport operation (Deloitte, 2013; UK Parliament, 2011). The ineffective approach caused many of the problems faced on re-opening and impeded return to normal operations. Eventually, a decision by Heathrow airport to invoke the Scarce Capacity Protocol (SCP) designed to ensure fair and proportionate allocation of access to take-off and landing slots for airlines was reached. This protocol was however overly conservative and difficult to enforce, hindered by policing issues (AOA, 2013; UK Parliament, 2011).
Various UK airports have similarly been affected by weather conditions to varying degrees though recovery has usually been swift. A number of these airports remain open to receive long-haul diversions in times of disruption (DoT, 2013; Seabury, 2012). Although weather forecasting would add value to minimization of disruption, AOA, 2013 and Deloitte, 2013 disclose that none among UK’s civilian airfields has a dedicated forecasting service based on site.
Closure, delay, and/or cancellation have far reaching consequences beyond the inconvenience caused to customers which portends erosion of passenger goodwill and loss of future revenue (BA, 2014; Deloitte, 2013). Costs associated with weather disruption vary depending on contingency and elusive to pin down exactly. Direct costs derive from airline operations such as diversion, cancellation, delay or insurance and include listed costs such as: fuel, crew, time, and aircraft operating costs, lost passenger and cargo revenue, hotel accommodation and meals, ground-based employee overtime pay, insurance, etc. (Deloitte, 2013; Seabury, 2012). Disruption, particularly for hub airport operations given their extensive connectivity may have widespread effects affecting myriad flight schedules and airport operations in far flung areas. Seabury, 2012 and Deloitte, 2013 estimate that one diverted flight can cause 2 to 50 flight delays, while a cancelled flight can result in 15 to 20 delays.
British Airways has more recently in 2013 and early 2014 been impacted by adverse weather in its operations at home and internationally (particularly the US) and affecting its global network (BA, 2014). In 2012, the airline also suffered mishaps on its Airbus fleet due to the freezing of pilot tubes which feed vital air speed data to on-board computers facilitating the autopilot mode. This led to two emergency landings evidence of the risk weather portends to safe flight linked to the potential damage in loss of life, property as well as repute (BA, 2014; FoE, 2013). This scenario lays out a representation of problems and damages consequent to weather disruption at Heathrow affecting BA and the entire UK aviation system.
Steps to minimise the effect of bad weather and the ramifications of decisions to stakeholders
Accurate weather forecasts are a priority for safety and efficiency in aviation. This is a primary focus area in order to minimize effects of weather disruption (FoE, 2013; Seabury, 2012)… Accurate information derived from congruent forecasts from numerous agencies enables an effective prediction of the extent of disruption and therefore appropriate response. The use of varied and possibly conflicting forecasts was the probable cause of conflict in the case above creating problems and compounding the issue (Qualley, 2009; Iyengar, 2002).
Adverse effects of weather on the industry can be avoided if only airlines and the entire industry work together to interpret such natural phenomena better. Various agencies – both state and private – should participate in accumulating reports and materials on weather patterns useful in the creation of referential databases. These can then be updated and shared widely across the industry to minimize the impact of adverse events. Uniformity and congruence of information should be aspired to and costs associated with provision of weather information should be addressed (Kulesa, 2010; Qualley, 2009). Despite additional costs, the development of meteorological capacity on site in airports manned by employees or forecast vendors should be made mandatory. This strategy will negatively impact weather forecast contractors and vendors.
Timely transmission of forecasts is also essential allowing sufficient lead time for appropriate preparation, and early response (FoE, 2013). Such include the efficient conduct of the intricacies of flight planning such as re-routing, rescheduling, load and fuel balancing, among others, as well as institution of mitigation measures. Open and extensive communication and consultation among various players is paramount for coordinated and effective response towards overall reduction of impact. This can be achieved through efficient and proactive use of command and control structures and involvement of external entities such as the broadcast media transmitting vital information to customers. During response, focus should be on the entire airfield and mix of essential operations in an interdependent system (Kulesa, 2010).
Development of comprehensive and extensive protocols and contingency planning should be undertaken to facilitate response to disruption (Deloitte, 2013; DoT, 2013). These should entail forward planning, strategies and methods to govern operations, as well as effective business continuity plans to mitigate risks to the extent possible. Despite prohibitive costs, use of intricate computer programs in planning and response should be encouraged. Existing policies, protocols and measures should be realigned and restructured for better effectiveness and enforcement mechanisms should be instituted to ensure compliance (Seabury, 2012; UK Parliament, 2011). On-ground mitigation measures such as de-icing and ploughing of snow should be made mandatory and part of essential procedure. Such measures may not sit well with independent industry players but should be enforced.
At the operational level, measures to protect reputation and consequently the potential loss of business from inconvenienced customers should be instituted (Deloitte, 2013). Customer support programs and response centres undertaking such tasks as rebooking, refunds processing, and provision of information are thus essential. Airlines should also create alliances and agreements activated in times of disruption to enable support for affected players and entities (Seabury, 2012). Though it comes at a cost, this will serve to benefit customers and to reduce overall adverse impact of event. Safety measures such as enhanced flight briefings, appropriate pilot training, and continuous streaming of updated current information should be emphasized as weather is unpredictable and subject to change. Overall, comprehensive reviews of incidents and failures and generation of continuous applicable learning for particular locations and scenarios is beneficial.
Regarding policy, the expansion of airport capacity at Heathrow and major airports, as well as creation of new airports is essential for better resilience (Deloitte, 2013; Seabury, 2012; DoT, 2013). With no spare capacity, Heathrow is vulnerable to short term operational disruption (BA, 2014; AOA, 2013). Capacity expansion may also enable diversion in times of need easing intense pressure and thus enabling better management of adverse events. Alongside such developments, it is also important to focus on surface connections such as rail and roads to ease pressures of domestic air travel and hence to free some airport capacity (DoT, 2013; Seabury, 2012). They could also serve in times of disruption facilitating diversions and airport transfers. These measures may not be popular however with political players and customers seeking convenience.
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