Wednesday, 22 December 2010

Hysterical journalism

The media narrative on the snow is becoming quite hysterical. Of course it is easy for me to say this, as the snow down here in Southampton has not been particularly bothersome. They are all at it: the BBC, Sky and the newspapers, hand-wringing and asking why 'we' (by which they mean anyone but themselves) cannot cope with snow.

Take BBC News 24 on Monday afternoon. They interviewed a spokeswoman for the Burlington International Airport in Vermont, who claimed with pride that their airport rarely closed due to snow. The presenter did not ask any particularly pertinent questions, and seemed keen to push blame onto BAA, the company that operates Heathrow.

So I thought that I would look up Burlington International Airport. The link shows that in 2008 the airport performed 72,189 individual aircraft operations.

Compare this with Heathrow, which had 466,393 individual aircraft operations in 2009. As can be seen, Heathrow is six times as busy with only two runways. This means that Heathrow is far busier, and has less slack for doing maintenance of runways, taxiways and stands between flights. Indeed, Heathrow is operating at 98% of capacity. This means that there even the slightest delay to operations can cascade down. What is amazing about Heathrow is that they manage to run services as well as they do.

Again as a comparison, Birmingham Airport had 101,221 flights in 2009.

True, things could have been done better. But I am getting fed up with journalists - many of whom have had no experience of engineering - criticising things they have little idea of.

Take a common complaint: that the organisations involved (the airlines, the airports or the railway companies) do not give enough information out. This complaint assumes one massively important thing, and that is that the organisations *know* what the situation is. Snowfall in Britain can be hard to predict, both in when it falls, the severity and the duration. We must all have driven and seen heavy snow lying in one area, and green fields just a few miles away.

The BAA people will be spending all their time trying to get as many planes in the air as possible, and the situation must be extremely fluid. Planes take time to clear, and the authorities will not know with any certainty which plane might be the next to be ready to go. Therefore it must be next to impossible to tell an individual passenger when his plane will be leaving.

There is one thing that I find amazing: that passengers were left on a plane for hours after it had left the gate. This was wrong, and should be avoided in the future. Again, this can be easier said than done. It would be interesting to see where the fault for that lies. Was it the airline or BAA who made those passengers suffer?

Much credit to Channel 4's seven o'clock news, whose reporting and criticisms appear to be much more valid. Having said that, they did broadcast an interview with an American lady last night who said that the travel chaos were similar to the images she had seen of the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Yeah, right. A few people getting delayed or changing their travel plans is anything like a disaster where 1,800 people died and thousands lost their homes. Some people need to get a sense of perspective...