On Snow and Strategy

Should we prepare for climate extremes at any cost?

This issue came into sharp focus at Heathrow airport over the weekend. Because of the freeze doing its evil work in Britain, my flight out to Australia was canceled. Luckily, I’ve rebooked it for just after xmas, hardly ideal but others are having a much harder time.

Yours truly was in the belly of the beast on Saturday night at Heathrow Terminal 4. There were thousands of people who were confused and angry.

And some of them were loudly authoritative. As the frustrating day ground on, a lot of people decided that the whole problem was straightforward.

According to them, a few inches of snow is nothing. We should obviously be well prepared with hi-tech machines and skilled personnel. If they can do it from Iceland or Sweden, they can do it from London. And so on.

But hang on, can it really be so simple? I know next to nothing about these things. But some of the statements of the BAA are worth the hearing.

The public expect to fly, but they also expect security in this age of fear. If just one plane had skidded or crashed or collided with something, the tabloids and outraged customers and victims would be demanding an inquest, asking why the airport didn’t do the obvious thing and shut a runway, or shut them all. Wanting 400,000 people or so to be processed and flown to their destination matters. Wanting none of them to be killed needlessly surely matters more.

As for readiness: how ready must we be? Is the exact time of Christmas day so sacred that British society should invest hundreds of millions of pounds more, maybe even a billion, to forestall more severe disruptions like this?

If so, where is the money to come from? Other services, or higher charges, or higher taxes? The same tabloids that demand greater readiness also demand low taxes. You don’t have to be Walter Lippmann to see that this is a basic means-ends problem.

And getting planes into and out of Heathrow is not exactly analogous to doing so in other frosty cities around the world. Many more planes, more intense usage, much more potential for things going wrong.

Snow on the ground can be cleared, but it takes a while, and if it stays cold, the slush itself can freeze, while the planes themselves freeze up, and the longer this takes, the more people are left in a backlog.

Clearly there are things our airports can do better. Despite the warnings, it was obvious that the system just couldn’t cope with looking after the stranded. At the luggage collection point, there were not enough staff dealing with way too many people and they didn’t know enough to tell them. And clearly there hadn’t been much, or enough, preparation for looking after people in the most stricken circumstances, ie. families going long-haul who had literally nowhere else to go.

But on bigger and more complex questions about weather, readiness, cost, risk and the nature of the problem itself, maybe folk should reach for their opinion-revolvers less quickly, think harder about why this is so difficult, and recognise that we customers are part of the problem:

we expect almost as a natural right to go where we want all over the planet for one specific day, we expect to get there in perfect safety, we expect not to pay much for this privilege or for the state that oversees it, and we think that just because we experience travel and flying, we are experts in aviation, risk assessment and public policy. We aren’t, we should stop pretending to be,  and even start rethinking what we are reasonably entitled to.

Finally, thanks to Mitchell Johnson (pictured), who by terrorising the English top order reminded us all that we aren’t experts on cricket selection either, and cheered me the hell up. 

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