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BREAKINGVIEWS - London slides, again, because of Heathrow, again
LONDON (Reuters Breakingviews) - London is sliding, again, because of Heathrow, again. The snow and ice in Europe is extreme but the situation at the region's most important airport is still shocking. The logistical failings are bad, the customer service woeful -- even for premium travellers. London must get a grip of its gateway to the global business community.
There were problems on Friday, before the snow hit in earnest. One British Airways flight with New York-bound financiers on board sat on the runway for four hours. Passengers were told that 45 planes needed de-icing, which could be done at a rate of only six to seven an hour. That was later revised two an hour. Some trucks then "ran out of fluid". The passengers were shunted back -- through passport control, even though the plane hadn't left the ground -- into a terminal full of confused travellers being told by a BA customer service rep to check the website. The internet connection, no joke here, was frozen.
Thousands of people -- leisure and business class -- have similar stories. Blame for the fiasco is shared widely. Heathrow operator BAA de-ices runways and stands. Airlines are responsible for de-icing their planes. BAA communicates with airlines about available capacity, but it's up to airlines to tell their customers what's flying. It is a complex operation to choreograph, with 77,000 staff at the hub employed by hundreds of companies.
But the risk that flights can be grounded suddenly is not small -- think terror, industrial action, volcanic ash and bad weather. And the conclusion should be that Heathrow needs better management. Its contingency planning must be completely overhauled. As well as keeping customers happier, investment here is also likely save money.
Until that happens, the business community is left relying on its own ingenuity. American flyers twigged that BA's U.S. unit was still taking calls. Banks' in-house travel agents put staff on Eurostar trains to Brussels to fly from there.
London, Heathrow and its airlines must work harder to find routes through adversity. Otherwise customers will find alternative ways of doing business.
(Editing by Robert Cole and David Evans)
The author is a Reuters Breakingviews columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.
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