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Wintry weather is latest woe for unloved Heathrow

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LONDON — Managers at Heathrow Airport boasted last month that their snow team was working flat out to ensure the facility "will once again be prepared for the onset of winter."

Then a few inches of snow fell, and Europe's busiest airport shut down. People slept on floors under foil blankets, or were turned away outside terminals, Christmas travel plans in ruins.

Flights were returning to normal Wednesday, but the fallout continued, with Heathrow boss Colin Matthews renouncing his annual bonus as a gesture of contrition.

With passengers still deeply angry and politicians echoing their complaints, the most enduring damage from the snowstorm may be to the reputation of an airport that was already overcrowded, unloved and in need of an upgrade.

Wolfgang Prock-Schauer, chief executive of airline BMI, put the blame squarely on Heathrow's owner, Spanish-owned company BAA.

"BAA was not prepared," Prock-Schauer told the Times newspaper. "It did not have enough deicing fluid."

Heathrow said the chaos was a result of the airport's lack of spare capacity and unusually harsh weather — Meteorological Office figures show 3½ inches (9 centimeters) of snow fell Saturday and quickly froze. The airport, which said 5 inches (12.7 centimeters) fell, strongly denied running short on deicing fluid.

On Wednesday, Heathrow said it was running almost 900 flights, 70 percent of a full service, after finally reopening both runways for the first time since Saturday. Many of the travelers who had slept on terminal floors amid mounds of luggage were finally getting on planes. But they weren't happy.

David Sorrell, trying to get to Australia with his wife and two children, said conditions this week were "atrocious — people sleeping on the floor, people drunk, we had people shouting and screaming, people wanting to have fights. It's like a refugee camp."

BAA would not reveal the size of the bonus Matthews is giving up, but his salary and bonuses for last year came to 944,000 pounds ($1.46 million).

He said the airport was "fully operational" but acknowledged "it's still going to take several days to get everyone where they want to be."

He said Heathrow would be buying new cold-weather equipment, and promised this week's chaotic scenes would not be repeated.

"Now that the runways are fully operational, we can turn our attention to making sure it never happens again," he told Sky News. "Events proved we weren't adequately prepared."

BAA, which owns Heathrow and five other British airports, was formed in 1986 when the state-run British Airports Authority was privatized.

It was listed on the London Stock Exchange but delisted after it was bought in 2006 by a consortium headed by Grupo Ferrovial S.A. of Spain. Competition regulators ordered the company to sell Gatwick, Britain's second-busiest airport, in 2009 to break up its virtual monopoly. It must also sell London's Stansted and one of its Scottish airports.

A 2008 Competition Commission report criticized BAA for "a lack of responsiveness to the interests of airlines and passengers that we would not expect to see in a business competing in a well-functioning market."

Heathrow's recent history has been dotted with woes.

Two years ago the gleaming new Terminal 5 — billions of dollars and almost 20 years in the making — opened with chaotic scenes and flight cancelations when a state-of-the-art baggage-handling system broke down within hours of the opening

Thousands of passengers also have been disrupted by a series of strikes by cabin crew at British Airways, which uses Heathrow as its base.

The airport said runways and stands took a long time to clear after Saturday's snow simply because Heathrow is so busy. Designed to serve about 45 million passengers a year, it now handles around 67 million.

When the snow hit, all the stands were full, meaning planes could not be moved and snow and ice had to be removed around them.

At Heathrow, there's a gap of just 45 seconds between planes — so even a short closure of the runway has a big effect.

BAA argues that the only solution is for it to expand. Schiphol airport in Amsterdam has five runways, Charles de Gaulle in Paris has four and Frankfurt has three. Heathrow has just two — but plans to build a third were rejected by the government after a long campaign by neighbors and environmentalists. There is nowhere for Heathrow to grow.

"The airport as a whole would have to be twice the size" to function as well as Frankfurt, said Howard Wheeldon, senior strategist at BGC Partners. "It would have to have three or four runways."

Other European airports, including those in Frankfurt, Amsterdam and Paris, also experienced closures and cancelations this week, although they recovered more quickly than Heathrow.

All were getting back to normal Wednesday. Frankfurt airport canceled about 70 flights out of a daily total of about 1,300. The French government said 15 percent of the flights from Charles de Gaulle would be canceled.

Snow stopped falling in Ireland around midnight and Dublin Airport pressed hard to catch up after losing most of Tuesday when 90,000 tons of snow had to be cleared from runways.

Eurostar, which offers train services between England, France and Belgium, said routes were operating a near-normal schedule.

European Union transportation commissioner Siim Kallas was critical of the performance of several western European airports and threatened tougher regulation if they did not how "better preparedness, in line with what is done in northern Europe."

Airports on Europe's northern fringe are models of cold-weather resilience. Scandinavian airports stay open in bitter cold and waist-deep snow. Authorities in Sweden say they can clear a runway in 6 to 10 minutes, compared with 25 at Heathrow.

Reijo Tasanen of Finavia, which runs Finland's 25 airports, said preparedness is the key.

"We are ready. We brief the staff on weather conditions, we work overtime if necessary and simply put, we have enough equipment — we have to," Tasanen said.

That doesn't come cheap. Canada's biggest airport, in Toronto, spends almost $15 million a year dealing with winter. Heathrow won't give a comparable figure but said it has 6 million pounds ($9 million) worth of snow-clearing equipment and is spending 500,000 pounds ($770,000) this year upgrading and maintaining it.

Heathrow faces a choice: Invest tens of millions in snow-clearing equipment, or gamble that this year's wintry weather was a one-off event.

"BAA has to make a decision for the future: 'Do we throw more equipment at it?'" said David Learmount of Flight Global magazine. "Then what happens if they never get any snow for the next 10 years? What will their shareholders say when they put the prices up to airlines and the airlines pass that on to passengers? It's a difficult decision."

Despite the gripes of airlines and the complaints of customers, strategist Wheeldon said Heathrow's position as Europe's leading airport is secure — for now.

"For 95 percent of the year Heathrow works well enough," he said. "It might be loathed, but it's workable, it's doable, it's manageable.

"I think the challenges to Heathrow are not European airports. They're Middle Eastern airports, the Dubais of the world. It's there we should look for the hub system challenges of the future."


Associated Press writers Paisley Dodds, Gregory Katz and Sylvia Hui in London, Matti Huuhtanen in Helsinki, Shawn Pogatchnik in Dublin, Jan M. Olsen in Copenhagen and Geir Moulson in Berlin contributed to this report.