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Britain mulls law to fine airports after Heathrow chaos

by Staff Writers
London (AFP) Dec 26, 2010
British ministers said Sunday they wanted to introduce new laws to allow regulators to fine airports for travel disruption, after a pre-Christmas cold snap all but shut down Heathrow Airport last week.

Philip Hammond, the transport minister, told the Sunday Times that regulators should have tougher powers to punish airports who fail passengers, after thousands were forced to sleep at Heathrow when heavy snow grounded flights.

"There should be an economic penalty for service failure," he said. "Greater weight needs to be given to performance and passenger satisfaction."

Hammond said it was unacceptable that BAA, the Spanish-owned operator of Heathrow -- the world's busiest airport for international passenger traffic -- would face no punishment from the regulator under the current system.

At the moment, the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) can only impose fines in specific categories, such as for how long passengers queue at security, seating availability and cleanliness.

Terminals at Heathrow Airport were turned into dormitories for several days in the run-up to Christmas as angry passengers unable to fly were forced to spend the night on luggage trays used as makeshift beds.

Most flights are now operating normally but the shutdown caused outrage, with Prime Minister David Cameron at one point stepping in to offer military assistance to the operator, which BAA declined.

The Department for Transport confirmed it was looking at options for new legislation, and junior transport minister Theresa Villiers said this would give regulators powers to intervene between regular five-year reviews.

"The regulator would have the chance to get involved to work out whether the airport is performing well enough in the face of winter resilience, whether it has prepared well enough, and whether it has let passengers down or not," she told BBC News.

"It (the legislation) would give the regulator the power to fine an airport where it does let passengers down and doesn't prepare properly for severe weather conditions."

The regulator could also be given powers to step in when an airport is not working effectively, the Sunday Times reported.

"Because airports are ultimately strategic infrastructure, we probably need to have as a very last resort some powers to intervene in the way we don't have at the moment, except where safety and security are concerned," Hammond said.

BAA has launched an inquiry into the Heathrow snow chaos and chief executive Colin Matthews has said he is not taking his bonus this year.

A spokeswoman for BAA said Sunday: "We welcome legislation designed to improve the experience for passengers at the UK's airports."

She added: "We will of course play a full part in the government's discussions about this year's weather disruption and will make public the findings of our own independent investigation."

The firm will also invest 10 million pounds (15 million dollars, 12 million euros) in new snow equipment after claims that it did not have enough ploughs to clear its runways, BAA chairman Nigel Rudd told the Sunday Telegraph.

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