Met Office supports airports through winter weather
James Shapland, the Met Office’s Aviation Operations Manager, explains how the Met Office works with airports to ensure operations run smoothly during the challenging winter period.
Winter weather offers a particular set of challenges to the efficient and smooth running of an airport, and few operations in the UK can be impacted as much by significant weather events as Heathrow.
Weather disruptions can lead to significant strains on an airport and the people who use it, not just in terms of scheduling issues around the arrival and departure of flights, but also on the vast array of associated infrastructure, disruption to passengers and the resourcing of staff . As a hub airport, delays and disruption at Heathrow can have a significant knock-on impact on the large number of destinations Heathrow serves – effectively anywhere in the world. Essentially, the implications of bad weather in a localised area of west London can be global.
When it comes to the scheduling of flights at Heathrow, there is very little room for manoeuvre. Whilst airports typically run at 60 to 70 per cent of runway capacity as standard, demand for flights in and out of Heathrow is so strong that it runs to 99 per cent of capacity between 05:40 to 22:30 daily. This means that smaller issues which may have little impact at, say, Stansted or Gatwick, can more easily create scheduling headaches at Heathrow.
For example, strong winds that have only a minor impact on flight times at most other airports can create a domino effect of delays at Heathrow. An aircraft arriving at Heathrow from Frankfurt may have a further four flights scheduled for that day – so this can have significant ramifications for major hubs in Europe or the U.S. which are set to be served by that aircraft.
A serious weather event, such as the extremely high snowfall experienced in December 2010, can have a significant negative impact on Heathrow’s operations, so these must be planned for with real precision to minimise the effect on the airport and its passengers. In the case of snowfall that requires snow ploughs to clear a runway, only one of Heathrow’s runways can be operational at any given time, as one must be cleared whilst one is used. This essentially more than halves the capacity of Heathrow – but less planning would have an even bigger impact.
It is, therefore, vital that Heathrow and the Met Office work in close collaboration to ensure that when impactful weather does occur, appropriate measures are put in place to minimise and manage disruptions.
Why put forecasters at Heathrow?
The heavy snow that the UK experienced in December 2010 severely impacted Heathrow as well as a number of airports across the UK, causing a knock-on effect for airports across the globe.
The resultant Begg Report, commissioned by BAA, found better communications and preparedness for bad weather was required at Heathrow. It advised Heathrow to establish better links with a meteorological organisation with which it would work to reduce the risk of weather impacting airline scheduling and passenger flow. The Met Office was delighted to fulfil this role and renew a partnership. In 2011, a trial of ‘embedded forecasters’ at Heathrow was renewed and, in 2013, Heathrow and the Met Office signed a five-year contract for meteorological services, only for the relationship to grow stronger, and a second, seven-year contract, to be signed in December 2017.
In order to ensure Heathrow is fully prepared for weather events, 10 forecasters are now based on site, plus an Operations Manager, in a dedicated Airport Operations Centre (APOC). Here, we work alongside the duty managers at Heathrow and other organisations that provide information to keep the airport operating efficiently.
APOC brings together every area of information that is required to run the airport efficiently, from forecasting, NATS, aircraft fl ow management and passenger fl ow, to associated infrastructure, such as surrounding motorways and public transport. It’s essentially Heathrow’s ‘nerve centre’. Daily, our meteorologists continuously advise the airport 24/7 on any weather events that are likely to have an impact. This vital information is then passed on to airlines, so a truly coordinated effort is put into managing and minimising disruption to schedules and, ultimately, the passengers. The success of the APOC, its relationship with integrate meteorology, air traffic control and key decision making is now seen as best practice across the industry.
Our short-term forecasts are vital for staff operational planning – frost or snow mean that more staff will be required at Heathrow for defrosting purposes. In these cases, the Met Office must provide at least 48 hours notice so that Heathrow can arrange call-in staff to manage the implications of poor weather.
The Met Office also advises on conditions such as air temperature, ground temperature, surface winds and winds at 3,000ft. This guidance isn’t just for managing runway schedules – high surface winds may mean that items around the terminals may need strapping down for safety purposes, so the Met Office provides important advice which those responsible for health and safety at Heathrow can act upon.
Medium- and long-range planning
Whilst the Met Office team on the ground at Heathrow provides continuous advice throughout each day, our long-term planning and forecasting plays an equally crucial role. This was made evidently clear when the ‘Beast from the East’ impacted the UK through February 2018. Long-range forecasting enabled the airport to have clear stakeholder communications weeks before the event, allowing successful prior planning to keep the airport operating throughout the event.
These long-term indications are vital for Heathrow to successfully plan future operations and purchasing decisions. A colder than usual winter will necessitate an increased purchase of grit and de-icing fluid. Equally, the long-term forecast helps to plan logistical requirements – for example, if more staff are likely to be required to deal with issues arising from the weather.
We are also able to help Heathrow plan its energy usage to help it save money – a mild start to the winter may mean that heating can be kept off for longer than usual. With one of the largest heating bills in the UK, a mild winter can save Heathrow hundreds of thousands of pounds in energy bills – and, of course, help the airport to be more environmentally friendly. This all helps with the financial planning of the airport.
On hand to help
Our forecasting is not only important for Heathrow, but also for airlines based at the airport. Giving airlines enough time to cancel flights allows them to adjust schedules and keep passengers informed. When there is a significant event, very close collaboration with the airport and airlines is undertaken. The Heathrow Snow Responses Forecast will first highlight the likelihood of snow on the five-day forecast. Twenty-four hours before, exact timings for snowfall will be shared, which will include how long the snow is expected to persist and how heavily it is set to fall.
More than five to 10cm of snow in a short period of time will mean specialist snow removal crews will be required, snow clearance vehicles prepared and crews advised on what will need doing when. If runway snow clearance is required, a clearance schedule will be compiled. The Heathrow Snow Response Forecast is updated 18 hours in advance, 12 hours in advance and then every two hours, to make changes based on the level of snowfall.
Fog is another problematic weather type – and one that provides its own unique set of challenges. The arrival of snow can be easily tracked, but the spatial nature of fog makes it unpredictable, localised and difficult to forecast. The Met Office is currently investing significant resources into improving fog and low-cloud forecasting, increasing our scientific investigation into modelling. Our super-computer based in Exeter gives us access to higher resolution modelling and at greater frequencies, which will enhance the guidance of forecasting of fog and low cloud, across the UK.
The weather will always ‘still happen’ but, by working in partnership with Heathrow, together we are able to do all that is physically possible to mitigate the impact.
A lot of planning and practice takes place at Heathrow to ensure that, when the Met Office gives its forecasts, the right decisions and actions can be taken quickly, efficiently and professionally. Together with Heathrow, we are offering a world-leading service which ensures that Heathrow, its passengers, its airlines and its businesses are as well informed – and, therefore, as well prepared – as they can be for whatever Mother Nature has to throw at us.
James Shapland is an Aeronautical Meteorologist at the Met Office, overseeing the provision of services and onsite meteorologists to airports and airlines. Joining the Met Office in 2005 as an Operational Meteorologist for the defence sector, Shapland left in 2011 to work for the Bureau of Meteorology in Australia, based in the Qantas Operations Centre, before returning to the Met Office’s new site at Heathrow in 2012.