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B2B CSR Lacking in Senseless Heathrow Snow Disaster

Ann-Danylkiw | Friday December 24th, 2010 | 1 Comment

It took Heathrow airport one day to recover for each inch of snow it received five days ago.  Today, Heathrow airport is finally “recovered” from its ‘crippling’ snow fall. Two days longer than it took London’s other major airports to recover.

Beyond the point that even though something like this happened the last two years in a row and Heathrow’s Chief Exec Colin Matthews has admitted that he didn’t order enough de-icer, there are a few points I’d like to make that I feel are escaping the mainstream media coverage:  First, no one is talking about how to hold airport operator BAA accountable so this doesn’t happen again. Second, a point nicely made by @martinmckee via twitter, “If BAA realised they run airports and not shopping centres perhaps they could get Heathrow working.”

I should disclose at this point that I was supposed to fly from Heathrow on Tuesday– days after the snow fall– but had my flight cancelled.  I’ve been told by the undoubtedly knowledgeable United customer service representatives in India that it is impossible to get me on a flight before Christmas Day and that they cannot adjust my route to get me home sooner nor should I show up to the airport and wait to fly standby.

I decided very last minute to go home for Christmas, after attending a dinner party on 4 December given by a friend. Everyone was talking about Christmas traditions and I was facing a Christmas alone in my flat.  I decided I couldn’t take it and booked a — as you can imagine — last minute (read: expensive) flight.

The BBC is asking whether the reputation of Heathrow’s brand has has been damaged, while the Telegraph asks whether Britain’s brand has been damaged.  Funny how no one is asking if BAA’s mismanagement will damage its brand.

This is because BAA’s management of Heathrow airport has been piss-poor for years.

In 2007 the Guardian reported that BAA  had finally agreed to reconsider the amount of retail space at Heathrow in order to deal with overcrowding.

“BAA is often accused of building up its retail empire, which generates half its revenues, at the expense of passengers who languish at security checkpoints before being funnelled through mall-like areas.”

Indeed, in my experience you can barely find the gates for the shopping mall.

In 2008 Heathrow opened a new terminal after which its baggage claim system promptly collapsed. 20% of the flights from that Terminal were cancelled as a result.

Last year snow disrupted Christmas travel as well. But still Heathrow didn’t improve its investment in cold weather infrastructure. From the Guardian’s Heathrow correspondant: “BAA declined to comment. The £10m investment represents a twenty-fold increase on last year’s £500,000 expenditure on snow vehicles – a sum that could expose BAA to accusations of sustained under-investment in its winter preparations.”

To be fair, Matthews has only been incharge of Heathrow since 2008– but why did he receive recent past bonuses if the airport’s performance hadn’t improved?

The whole situation has been compounded by poor communication not only from BAA, but airlines as well.  A passenger interviewed by BBC news channel spoke of being ‘barked at like a dog’ by one airline customer service representative.  Another told of nightmare 3 days at the airport unable to shower.  All accounts speak of poor communication with airlines.

Somewhat ironically Heathrow’s social media performance made up for some of the lack of communication with people on the ground. BAA does get a few (but only a very few) points for having a live person responding in real time on its twitter account @HeathrowAirport. But if their social media is working and nothing else is, maybe they should rethink having the social media.

What’s obvious is that poor communication by the airlines to passengers isn’t all their fault. But what airlines are at blame for is not making BAA shape up despite past cock-ups.

Every company, in order to claim good corporate citizenship needs to make certain that those companies that are part of their production and supply chain act responsibly as well.  This is where all airlines that fly out of Heathrow have completely failed.

I haven’t been offered an apology or compensation by United.  But what if every airline gave every passenger whose Christmas plans were ruined because of their contractor’s excessive incompetence a free ticket.  Yes, that is almost a million people.  Expensive right? What if they turned around and handed the bill to BAA?

For years the infrastructure to support Heathrow airport has been vastly under-invested.  What does BAA do? They build more shops and ask for another runway instead of looking at the infrastructure they have and using their money to make it run more efficiently.  There is no way that London has the capacity to give Heathrow another runway.

If sustainability and good corporate citizenship are to become reality for every business, if we are to realise a new kind of capitalism these are the questions we need to ask.  Not only do customers need to hold the businesses they purchase goods and services from accountable, the businesses themselves do as well.

It’s time for B2B CSR.


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  • Justine Smith

    Let’s also mention all the families that are waiting at the other end of these trips. Think of the little children waiting for a parent or sibling to come home and make Christmas perfect.