Snow Screws Up Transnational Travel

Memo to Stephen Tschida: Do not go to England this week

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Europe has been paralyzed by heavy snowfall in recent days, with roads closed, trains delayed, and flights canceled in Germany, Belgium, France, and the U.K. Major airports in London, Paris, and Frankfurt have been closed or near-incapacitated, which in turn has disrupted flights all over the rest of the continent. Holidlay visitors from the U.S. have been inconvenienced, too. (Readers may be reminded of the Icelandic volcano that shut down European travel in April.) With up to half a million holiday travelers left stranded and frustrated, people are asking questions about why Europe's travel centers weren't better prepared, and what lessons can be learned for next time.

  • Foreign Ownership of Airports Is the Problem  At the U.K. Daily Mail, Alex Brummer offers a scathing indictment of "the dopey, inefficient BAA (the former British Airports Authority) who own Heathrow," and the "little-known, family-controlled Spanish construction group called Ferrovial" that bought up all of Britain's airports in 2006. Brummer explains that "despite Heathrow's economic and strategic importance to Britain, the Government is virtually powerless to do anything because the Authority is owned by a foreign company" that "had no experience of running airports, or indeed consumer-orientated businesses" at the time of purchase.

  • Europe Is Not One Big Country, agrees Melanie Phillips at The Spectator, another U.K. publication.

Britain's iconic infrastructure is increasingly being sold into foreign hands. Such a squandering of Britain's 'family silver' derives from... the imbecilic belief that national boundaries no longer have any significance in the great transnational progressive nirvana that Labour was intent on bringing about. But of course nations do matter. The chaos at Heathrow is but a graphic example of that reality ... It's all part of Labour's truly abominable legacy of wrecking the UK in the cause of realising some brave new, utterly changed world.

  • You Can't Own the Weather, Man  David Rothkopf at Foreign Policy takes the opportunity to do a bit of philosophizing. "We worry about x-factors and long-tail events and are regularly surprised by the predictable ... by snow and by heavy rain, by crowds of travelers overburdening systems on the holidays, by seasons, by the fact that markets go both up and down, by our own biology. Perhaps we ought to prioritize. Maybe we ought to figure out how to deal with the white swans before we get too caught up in the mysteries of the elusive and unlikely black ones."

  • Europe's Airport Tech Is Hopelessly Out of Date  "At a time," writes Clive Irving at The Daily Beast, "when most travelers are tech-fluent, using cell phones and tablets for actionable, current information, airline and airport websites are still stuck in the 1980s ... There is no excuse for the absence of timely and comprehensive emergency websites where travelers can go to see the complete picture, and respond accordingly. The most valuable commodity in any emergency like this is information."

  • Plus Heathrow Has Forgotten It's an Airport, adds Irving in a follow-up post at the Beast. "The people in charge of Heathrow could not muster the resources to plow two runways and clear ice and snow from terminal gates--not exactly rocket science," writes Irving. "The fundamental reason for this failure is hiding in plain sight... in Terminal Five, which was purpose-built for British Airways. What do you see once you check-in? Not an airport terminal, but a shopping mall." Irving writes that "in the late 1980s the Brits realized that an airport could be an entirely new kind of profit center," and in the years since, Heathrow's owners have put more care into "burnishing the shopping mall, and providing top-end restaurant franchises, than in actually making sure that passengers would have a seamless experience from check-in to the gate."

  • This Will Not Be Good for the Economy, predicts Bruce Crumley at Time.

British Airways says the delays are costing it around $100 million daily, while Air France puts the loss by the current snow disruption and one earlier this month at between $31 million and $52 million. According to reports, stores in the U.K. are reporting a 20% to 25% decline in sales that they blame on shoppers preferring to stay home rather than hazard the icy conditions. Once hotels, resorts, tour operators, and restaurants calculate the revenue lost from tourists never turning up as expected, the total hit from The Big Chill 2010 will almost certainly exceed $1 billion.

  • England Needs a Better Food System, declares Tim Lang in The Guardian. Right now, in U.K. supermarkets, "all stock arrives just in time to go on to the shelves." Lang calls this "an astonishing feat of computerisation, satellites (tracking crops and wagons, planes, boats and trains) and management skills"--but it's one with almost no margin for error. However, when severe snowstorms come along, and "motorways are halted, the one in four vehicles on British roads that carry food are bound to be affected." Lang writes that the attitude of "you can have what you want... is ultimately a cultural issue, about consumer expectations... But unravelling and reworking it for a more sustainable food system will be central to 21st century politics."

  • This Sucks, But It's Not Exactly the Blitz  An editorial in The Guardian notes that the chaos in London notwithstanding, "life in most of the country has continued relatively normally in the last few days." The piece also points out that "the fact that all this happened just before Christmas makes the consequences worse, though it also challenges the modern assumption that hyper-mobility is a right: not everyone will feel sorry for families denied skiing trips or Christmas sun in the tropics."

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.