As snow falls in Britain, Heathrow upholds reputation as travelers' 'black hole'

London's Heathrow airport is once again the target of criticism after a preemptive shutdown hours before a light snowfall in the United Kingdom.

Kirsty Wigglesworth/AP
Birds sit on a snowy railing in front of St. Stephens tower housing the Big Ben clock in London, Sunday, Feb. 5. Snowfall and freezing weather conditions across the country caused disruption to the transportation system across much of Britain.

Heathrow airport outside London is known to baffle, confuse, and often infuriate passengers and airlines – a reputation sustained this weekend after a draconian decision to shut service for half of all flights after only three inches of snowfall.

The first big snow of the winter in the United Kingdom brought a blizzard of criticism to one of the world’s most trafficked airports, raising the question of how soon should a major world hub act on weather predictions.

Using a preventive safety plan newly designed to help passengers avoid being stranded, the world’s third largest airport and European hub cancelled a third of flights nine hours before any snow fell Saturday, then persisted in keeping half its flights on the ground into Sunday afternoon, even as most runways were clear.

Airport operators admitted Monday that despite years of trying to address various logistical problems, that snow is still one they have yet to master. About 600 of some 1300 flights were cancelled, affecting some 18,000 passengers, reports the Telegraph.

Critics pointed out that while Heathrow was largely closed and London-bound passengers were diverted to Ireland, the Netherlands, and Scotland, airports in Germany and Scandanavia, which had more snow and lower temperatures, continued to operate.

One Russian woman who took off from Moscow in temperatures of 20 below was shocked to arrive in the British Isles Sunday to see the runways clear, according to a Telegraph reporter.

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Low temperatures and snow were largely been missing in Europe this winter until last week, when arctic conditions hit the Balkans and a corridor stretching to Ukraine, then began moving west. The Spanish company that runs Heathrow said it wished to avert the kind of five-day crisis that befell the busy hub in December 2010, when airports around Europe shut down as snow piled up.

Heathrow is now open, with some 850 of 1,231 scheduled flights taking off, an airport spokesman said. Heathrow airport website reports a “handful” of flights will not take off.

Heathrow's image as a possible black hole for passengers dates back years, even as British authorities have devoted more money to its development and opened a new terminal. Last year, following the December 2010 hubbub, the number of snow plows at Heathrow was increased by 68, and the airport now has a fleet of 185. But authorities report that de-icing services by which aircraft wings and moveable parts are treated prior to takeoff are still not properly coordinated when numerous runways are closed.

Representative Richard Scott of the Spanish firm BAA that oversees the operations, told reporters that Heathrow runs at full capacity most of the time and still can’t always adjust to vicissitudes of Mother Nature. Mr. Scott said the cancellations allowed passengers to re-book on other flights and avoid showing up at the airport needlessly.

Despite criticism, Downing Street and the Transportation Secretary Justine Greening said that the decision on grounds of safety was the proper one.

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