An Emirates airline Airbus A380 takes off. Lifting the laptop ban would be a welcome reprieve for Middle East carriers Image Credit: AFP/Gulf News Archives

London: Heathrow airport has invested tens of millions of pounds in new equipment to ensure there is not a repeat of last year's Christmas travel chaos if Britain is hit by another big freeze.

John Holland-Kaye, commercial director of British Airports Authority (BAA), told Gulf News that new equipment included snow-clearing machines, heated marquees and extra staff training, in an overall investment that will eventually clock in at £40 million (Dh277.8 million).

Heathrow has also recruited a weather forecaster from the UK Met office to specifically analyse the conditions in real time and brief airport bosses. The airport has also trained 900 back office staff to go out and liaise with travellers should another crisis occur.

Holland-Kaye said the move followed a review of airport practices after widespread criticism of BAA, the operators and owners of Heathrow, over flight cancellations that left thousands of passengers stranded last year.

"We've put a number of things in place to be better prepared this year; £40 million has been committed and most of it has been spent," he said. "We have four times as many [snow clearing] machines as we had this time last year, and we have been practising snow clearance. If the same thing happens again we will be able to clear the snow in a matter of hours instead of days."

UAE expatriates hit

British expatriates flying home from Dubai and Abu Dhabi were hit hard by the cold snap that hit the UK last year, with flights cancelled in the run-up to Christmas and hundreds of passengers diverted to German and French airports.

Some reported having to travel for up to three days over frozen French roads to try to catch ferries across the English Channel, while others with connecting flights to the US and beyond were left stranded. In the UK, thousands of passengers spent days in Heathrow's terminals trying to go on their holidays.

Holland-Kaye said indications were that the weather would not be as bad this year, but that the investment was worthwhile for BAA in the long term. Any major catastrophe that hits the UK or Heathrow would benefit from extra training and crisis management initiatives implemented over the last 12 months, he said.

"The chances are that we won't have snow like that again. If we have any sort of crisis we have to make sure we are looking after passengers well," he said. In the wake of last year's crisis, a UK House of Commons transport select committee reported that Heathrow Airport was "totally unprepared to recover from any major incident which necessitated its closure", a claim that BAA rejected.

The company cited a report published in May 2011 by the Begg Enquiry, which found that BAA had historically "demonstrated its ability to respond well to earlier weather events". BAA also cited its response to the airspace closure caused by volcanic ash in 2010.