BAA has revealed plans to improve its crisis management and communication systems after an enquiry lambasted Heathrow Airport’s response to extreme weather last winter.

The airport operator has been subject to strong criticism for the massive snow-related disruption and passenger confusion experienced at Heathrow in December, which led to BAA chief executive Colin Matthews commissioning an independent report, ‘Begg Winter Resilience Report’.

The report contained echoes of an independent review into the snow chaos that affected Eurostar and Eurotunnel in December 2009. Eurostar and Eurotunnel were heavily criticised for poor communication with passengers and for having an inadequate communication system in the Channel Tunnel, respectively.

Following a recent investment of £400 million in IT at Heathrow to share real-time information with third-parties, such as airlines, air traffic control and immigration control, to better respond to crises and provide improved services to customers, BAA now plans to invest £50 million into implementing all 14 of the recommendations Professor David Begg, non-executive director of BAA made in his report.

Begg said: “There is a need for BAA to adapt its approach to emergency planning, response and recovery to better align with best practice.”

The report found that due to an “unusual” and “unnecessarily complex” four-tier crisis management structure, BAA’s initial response to the snow crisis was “ineffective”. It was also concerned that no representatives from IT were automatically included in the crisis support team.

The complex structure resulted in failures in communication and coordination within BAA, and externally with airlines, causing a delay in response time that allowed the situation to get worse. This led to confusing and conflicting messages to be relayed to passengers, airlines and BAA staff.

However, the situation was more effectively managed when the BAA’s Executive Crisis Management Team (ECMT) and Capacity Constraints Group, an organisation made up of airlines and airport to determine the reduced capacity of the airport, were brought into action.

In order to involve these groups earlier in a crisis, Begg recommended the adoption of the standard three-tier (Gold, Silver, Bronze) command and control framework, as used by UK emergency services. Gold refers to the executive team providing strategic command, while the Silver team provides tactical command and Bronze provides operational control.

He said that a centralised, web-based Incident Management System also needs to be established, to allow all teams to record and track decisions and events, and to communicate with each other more effectively.  

Failures in communication resulted in a mismatch between flight schedules published by airlines and available capacity, for example. This resulted in poor engagement with passengers, many of who then chose to stay in terminals in the hope that their flights would depart.

On 19 December, despite being told that the airfield was closed to all arrivals, many airlines reportedly showed scheduled flights on their systems, which were automatically replicated in BAA’s internal systems, on public-facing website, flight information display system (FIDS) screens in the terminal, and in the systems of Airport Coordination Limited (ACL), which is responsible for allocating slots and schedule data collection at a number of airports.

Although the report noted that BAA and some airlines successfully used social working tools, such as Twitter and Facebook, to engage with passengers during the disruption, it concluded that BAA needs to work with airlines to ensure that in an emergency, changes in airport and airline statuses can be quickly and accurately communicated to passengers, through a single, authoritative channel.

Meanwhile, Begg was concerned that Heathrow did not have a single Airport Communication and Control Centre –  as is best practice in many large airports like Los Angeles LAX – to enable all parties to have a consistent real-time view of the airport’s status.

“This was a physical and a system problem,” he wrote in the report, as, for instance, the Crisis Support Team was based in a room with no visibility of the airfield.

“Qualitative situation reports were passed by telephone or handheld radio from the snow clearing teams on the ground to the Airside Local Business Recovery Team. Crisis communications were very reliant on telephone conferences and SMS text messaging, with limited use of electronic communication and collaboration tools,” he added.

The report therefore recommended that Heathrow should implement a new, real-time digital CCTV system with telemetry, as well as a secure, web-based system that senior stakeholders can access remotely for real-time information on the airport’s status.

BAA will also be addressing other recommendations in the report, such as improving its airport snow plans. This involves new equipment and more training for staff, as well as improving passenger care and support.

It has already started some of this work, for example, having increased the number of snow-clearing equipment, such as gritters and snow removal lorries, at Heathrow from 47 in December to 166.