Yesterday the focus of the long-running saga of problems at airports turned to Heathrow, where 30 flights were cancelled at very short notice. As we have seen at other airports over recent weeks, problems were exacerbated by inadequate communications, with some passengers only learning of cancellations once they were at the airport.
Whilst we have witnessed, and blogged about, many incidents at airports over the years; I cannot remember such a sustained or widespread pattern of disruption. This speaks to fundamental problems in the aviation sector, from which we can all learn a valuable lesson.
Basically, if you try to run operations at close to their maximum capacity, you invite disruption. Any slight increase in demand or fall in capacity (eg from staff illness) can quickly lead to an inability to maintain service to customers. Thus, as UK hospitals came under pressure in the 2000s to increase rates of bed occupancy; winter crises, when hospitals have to reduce services, became a regular occurrence.
So this is the fundamental trade-off that all organisations have to make: where do you strike the balance between volume and resilience? Obviously you do not want to have endless spare capacity lying idle but, equally, the overly ambitious plans of airport operators over recent weeks have seriously damaged the reputation of the whole industry. The real concern at this point, months into the crisis, is that decisions still seem to be being taken at the last minute, without the communication channels in place to back them up.