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Dubai has faced the ultimate dilemma for an airline

In bad weather, airport operators and carriers must make tough decisions fast. Let's cut Emirates some slack

Passengers queue at Dubai airport after last week's storm led to flight delays and cancellations Reuters
Passengers queue at Dubai airport after last week's storm led to flight delays and cancellations

A year’s worth of rain fell in a few hours in Dubai and the surrounding regions last week. The storm was a powerful reminder of the power of water and how climate change can affect even the most sophisticated airports and the most efficient airlines.

On social media, however, it seemed some passengers were more concerned about disruption to their journeys than the impact of flash flooding on a city of more than 3 million people.

Yes, there were numerous cancellations, diversions and delays, but the aviation industry’s “safety first” approach and abundance of caution prevented more serious problems after the Dubai storm last week. What would the reaction have been if an aircraft had aquaplaned on landing, leading to casualties? 

Airlines all over the world deal with tricky climatic conditions every day. On the US East Coast, afternoon thunderstorms are a regular occurrence, while on the opposite coast, early morning fog is often seen in summer. Thunderstorms are increasing in frequency over central Europe – both Frankfurt and Amsterdam were affected last weekend.

In addition, some airports are notorious for specific operating conditions. Approaches to Madeira, for example, require intense concentration as crosswinds from the Atlantic sweep across the runway.

Climate change is making these “once in a lifetime” weather events more common, but carriers are as prepared as they can be for such incidents and take their responsibilities extremely seriously.

Airlines face the ultimate operational dilemma when the first signs of bad weather are forecast.

If they activate a commercial closure too early and the bad weather does not arrive, it can be frustrating for everyone. But if they leave it too late to start cancelling, the operational and reputational damage can hang around for years.

On February 14 2007 the US airline JetBlue got caught out by a New York winter storm. Passengers who had already boarded were unable to travel or to disembark. They were stranded on stationary aircraft for more than 11 hours; an unforgettable Valentine’s Day for all the wrong reasons. 

Every day, somewhere around the world, an airport will have to close for a short period of time or will have to impose restrictions that reduce capacity as either the weather conditions or the available resources dictate.

But in all these cases, the principle is “safety first” and the recovery is perhaps more important than the actual incident. 

Recovery can take time

The speed of an airline’s recovery depends on many variables, including the type of fleet and network operated.

For Emirates, a carrier with a pure wide-bodied fleet that operates a range of medium and long-haul services, it will take longer to get back-to-normal operations than it would for a short-haul airline. 

Aircraft that have diverted to an alternate airport are likely to be stranded for at least 18 hours as the crew will quickly be “out of hours” and have to take a rest period before operating again. 

Conditions at the diverted airport may also place a constraint on turning an aircraft around. Not every airport has A380 airbridges, and unexpected arrivals can be parked remotely away from terminal buildings, making access difficult for both passengers and staff.

Refuelling can take longer than expected and new catering supplies may or may not be available. Even tasks such as emptying the toilets rely on the goodwill of handling agents who will already be handling their regular clients’ services. 

Given all this, a 24-hour cancellation or unscheduled stopover somewhere seems a reasonable compromise, especially when the high volumes of connecting traffic must be factored into any planning. 

Nearly half the passengers who pass through Dubai are connecting to another flight and it’s important to ensure they can be accommodated at the airport.

While it may seem sensible to return an aircraft to Dubai, disgorging 450 passengers who have just missed their connecting flights into a congested building only adds to the overcrowding – and of course invites another round of negativity on social media.

Sometimes waiting for the right moment in a location overseas can make more sense, however frustrating it may seem at the time.  

Emirates has already apologised to passengers and accepted that it could have handled some events better. The airport and other parties will all learn from the experiences of the past week.

New processes will undoubtedly be developed in Dubai, but this was a “once in a lifetime” storm and no two incidents are ever the same, so those lessons may not be entirely appropriate in future. 

Could any other business have handled the situation better? Probably not. Could the airline and airport have been more effective in their communication? Probably, but it was a fast-changing situation – and constant updates can confuse travellers. 

In time, passengers may realise that all the airlines and airports affected by last week’s extraordinary events did the best they possibly could and were always acting with the safety of their passengers as their top priority. 

Any traveller who still feels aggrieved in the cold light of day should just be thankful they were not flying with a low-cost airline that might have left them stranded where they landed.

John Grant is partner at UK consultancy Midas Aviation

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