December 10, 2017, was a day that many British Airways (BA) travelers will never forget, but for all the wrong reasons: more than 50,000 passengers were stranded around the world because of a de-icing catastrophe at Heathrow Airport in London. De-icing is the process of removing the ice from a plane’s wings before it takes flight. Too much ice on the wings adds weight, increases drag, and changes the airplane’s lift. During a flight, the wing’s surfaces are heated to eliminate the ice. Prior to flight, the plane must be manually de-iced using a hot mixture of propylene glycol and water. Some airports have a de-icing truck near the runway, so that the planes can be de-iced immediately prior to take-off. Heathrow, however, does not; planes must be de-iced at the stand, before they reach the runway.
Unfortunately, this procedure failed on December 10. The extremely poor weather conditions, including pouring rain and very low temperatures, meant that the British Airways planes could not be de-iced in a timely fashion. As BA operates the majority of the airline slots at Heathrow, their inability to de-ice quickly began to cause disruptions early in the day. The planes became more and more backed up on the tarmac, despite BA trying to manage the problem by pro-actively cancelling some flights. This attempt was not successful, and as the day wore on, more and more flights were delayed. Passengers waiting to leave Heathrow could not do so, and passengers in other European cities waiting to return to Heathrow were also unable to fly. Both short-haul and long-haul flights were delayed and eventually cancelled, resulting in chaos.
In addition to the delayed and cancelled flights, many flights were diverted to other airports. For example, passengers from Zurich and Madrid ended up in Cardiff, while travelers from Istanbul landed in Liverpool. Long-haul flights from Dubai and Mumbai were redirected to Paris and Frankfurt.
As the outbound flights were canceled, a corresponding number of inbound flights also had to be canceled. Airline crews had to rotate out when their shifts were finished. Throughout the entire process, passengers sat on planes and in terminals, hungry, frustrated, and unable to go anywhere. By the time the day was over, around 50,000 BA passengers had been affected by the de-icing calamity.
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