12/17/2013

Murphy's law hits the airport

It was unfortunate that the first weekend of incoming ski flights coincided with Geneva fog, making many airline passengers suffer.


Someone once wondered why airports tend to be built in areas subject to fog! True or not, Geneva can often get shrouded in low-level fog. That was the case in January 2010 when an Airbus A380 paid a first visit, and it has been the case this last weekend. By an unfortunate coincidence, this was the first of the weekends of many incoming ski flights, mostly from places in Britain. The skiers would have had a superb view of the Alps (rather lacking in snow at the moment) and the white blanket over Geneva.

Although the TV and the press started to carry news from Monday, 16 December, there had already been some signs of forthcoming trouble as far back as last Thursday, when general delays, probably from elsewhere in Europe, meant many more night flights than usual and one returning late easyJet flight from Porto diverted to Lyon.

Although it has hardly been mentioned in reports, Sunday was a pretty bad day, with a heavy mist down to the ground all day. As well as 20 night takeoffs and 30 night landings, many late returning flights were cancelled, and some flights, like the late easyJet returns from Barcelona and Bordeaux, were diverted to Lyon.

This meant that on Monday there were several aircraft required for early flights from Geneva, but which were elsewhere. No miracles here, even though easyJet flew in several UK-registered aircraft to help out. The quoted figure of the airport spokesman was about 20 cancellations, affecting about 3,000 passengers. However, this seems only to have referred to departures from Geneva, forgetting that there were an equal number of incoming flights having been cancelled or diverted. All in all, probably about 5,000 passengers had their travel plans messed up.

Fortunately, Tuesday is the quietest day of the week, so things may get back to more or less normal again. However, looking out of my window in mid-afternoon, I can see that the mist has not lifted in Versoix, so we will wait and see.

The statement of the airport spokesman is that, in cases of thick mist or fog, the spacing between aircraft movements has to be decreased from the normal maximum of about 40 per hour, down to as low as 12 per hour. As I understand it, aircraft can land automatically without difficulty, but once down the pilot needs to be able to see where to go!

I was pleased to see on the airport Web site today, Tuesday 17 December, an information notice indicating the problems, plus the fact that they had actually started last week and could still have an effect today, Tuesday. My only criticism with the notice, dated Monday 16 December but which I did not see on the airport site even quite late yesterday, would be precisely that it should have appeared BEFORE the problems arrived, rather than after the worst of the problems.

I did think originally to use the adjective "catastrophic" in describing the problems. However, the only real catastrophe is the worst winter weather in the Middle East for many years. In Syria it is estimated that because of war and weather, something like 7 million people have left their homes and 2 million have left their country, and we see images of children walking in snow and water in just open sandals. At the same time, the high pressure zone which is giving Geneva and its airport low mist is giving beautiful weather in the mountains.

Looked at from that perspective, the problems of passengers facing long delays and flight cancellations hardly rate a mention. Ironically, at the same time as we might wonder if this is related to climate change, we would be most happy to see the reverse situation: snow here and warm weather in the Middle East. Unfortunately, we seem to have no way yet to bring about this change, nor to end the murderous conflict in Syria.

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