Forecasting Lessons from Heathrow’s Snowpocalypse

As evidenced by lessons learned from the Heathrow Winter Resilience Inquiry, when it comes to accurately forecasting future events, it’s possible to get the forecast mostly correct yet not properly prepare or respond to forecast results.

The period of December 18-23, 2010 was shaping up to be just like any holiday season at Heathrow Airport. Plenty of planes, plenty of passengers and thousands of Christmas gifts passing through airport scanners. However, an event was brewing on the horizon—a significant winter storm was on the way.

Airport company BAA manages six airports in the UK. And even with a storm forthcoming, the company had successfully managed and responded to winter events in February 2009, January and November 2010. As BAA managers examined weather forecasts, it appeared this particular storm could be managed, just like any other.

Indeed, in column for the Financial Times, columnist Michael Skapinker notes that, “(BAA) knew the snow would strike at the busiest time of the year… (and) with almost every seat sold, the airport was heading for the busiest weekend in its 64 year history.”

Thus the table was set: a big storm forecasted and thousands of passengers still on their way to the airport with no flights—as yet—cancelled. Add in a dash of cranky holiday travelers and you have a combustible mix for sure. And when the storm finally hit Heathrow, chaos ensued.

On Saturday morning, there was more than 9cm of snowfall, with 7 cm falling in an hour! Airport operators didn’t anticipate how a rapid accumulation of snow would snarl air traffic. Case in point, there wasn’t enough equipment to de-ice planes, leading to four thousand flight cancellations. Adding insult to injury, communication processes between BAA and airlines broke down, leaving airlines to tell passengers conflicting stories when flights would resume. And stranded passengers were forced to spend days and nights at the airport without enough blankets, food and water.

The Heathrow Winter Resilience report, commissioned by BAA to help them deal with future crises, cited the necessity for better preparation and planning to deal with harsh weather conditions. In addition, to improve communications the report recommended a single physical control center for major incidents to help prepare for passenger welfare.

All of these are good steps; however this case study highlighted two important things. First, it’s possible to predict—even accurately—that an event will happen, but sometimes it is difficult to anticipate the severity of impact. Second, while it’s important to anticipate “what will happen”, the second part of the equation or the ability to “act” on that knowledge with the right people, processes and technology is critical to success or failure.


* What could BAA have done differently to “anticipate” the effects of the winter storm on December 18?
* Daily snowfalls increments of 7cm or more have only occurred six times since 1970 according to the Heathrow report. Was BAA “rolling the dice” in your estimation?


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