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Pilot forced to use broom to remove ice from plane in Belfast City Airport shambles

George Best Belfast City Airport has carried out a review of its de-icing operations following allegations of a “Third World” service after a pilot was forced to use a broom to clear ice from the wing of a plane.

Passengers on board a weekend flight to Heathrow were delayed for more than an hour after fluid in the de-icing machines ran out.

It was a major embarrassment for the airport which had promised that de-icing problems less than a month ago had resulted from a one-in-a-million chance when two machines broke down.

On that occasion more than 13 flights were cancelled and others diverted to Belfast International Airport in a situation which was believed to have cost hundreds of thousands of pounds.

Since then a third de-icing machine has been introduced but the delays returned to haunt the airport on Sunday when the machines ran out of de-icing fluid, which has to be heated to 90C more than an hour in advance of its use. It is thought that the de-icing machines were the responsibility of handling agents Servisair.

Among the air travellers who watched the pilot, his first officer and other ground staff as they climbed onto the wing to remove snow was former head of the Assets Recovery Agency Alan McQuillan, who described the facilities as “Third World”.

Last night Mr McQuillan said he would be continuing to use the airline service but insisted the problem needs to be sorted out.

“In winter you’re bound to get delays and the first hour of the delay was due to snow,” he said.

“The second hour was down to the fact that they couldn’t de-ice the plane. The bottom line is that this is the second time it has happened since Christmas with one de-icing machine running out and the second empty.

“If you are running an airport you are supposed to keep on top of these things. The airport is very convenient but they need to sort out their ground staff and make sure these things work.”

Mr McQuillan had described the situation as a shambles after the pilot announced he would be going out onto the wings with a brush to clear the ice.

“It was very embarrassing — there was an American lady on board and I’m sure she was wondering ‘what sort of airport is this’?” he said.

Last night the airport’s chief executive Brian Ambrose said he would challenge the description of facilities as Third World and said anyone was welcome to see the equipment.

“We use modern equipment, we have a track record that stacks up with any other airport and it doesn’t align with the facts,” he said.

Mr Ambrose said the airport had received a good Met Office forecast at the weekend and was geared up for snow.

“As a result of problems we had some weeks ago, when two de-icing rigs failed, we had since brought in a third rig on site.

“When snow comes we do two things in parallel — the airport concentrates on clearing the runway, taxiways and apron and while that is going on the airlines and the handling companies de-ice the aircraft.

“That all went fine, we got the airport fully operational, we got the line of aircraft de-iced. When we came to the final aircraft which was Heathrow, when we had almost finished the de-icer rig needed topped up with fluid.

“The captain could see the aircraft was almost good to go and decided that rather than wait for the fluid to be heated up to 90 degrees, he decided to finish the job manually with the engineers and that allowed him to depart.

“We used 900 litres of fluid but the simple facts are that the company should have heated more fluid.

“It’s perfectly normal in heavy snow to manually remove the first layer and use the de-icing rig to finalise the operation. I commend the skipper for making that decision so as to avoid further delay.

“Since Christmas Day we have handled 2877 flights — 0.6% of these flights have been affected by de-icer problems which are not uncommon in airport operations during adverse weather conditions. The weather over the last couple of months has been almost constantly sub zero and apart from a few weeks ago we feel we have had very few delays and have performed better than any other airport in the British Isles.”

Airport Q&A

George Best Belfast City airport’s chief executive Brian Ambrose has defended its record following recent criticism of its operation

Q: This is the second time there have been problems with de-icing planes in the last month — how can the public have confidence in George Best Belfast City Airport?

A: The confidence they can have is that yesterday we dispatched more than 100 flights and it went well. On Friday we dispatched more than 100 flights and that went well. If you take overall, should the public have confidence in the airport that processed 400,000 passengers since Christmas with few delays, yes I think so.

If the expectation is that you go through the entire winter with no delays, I think that is unrealistic. If the expectation is to minimise delays then that’s what we have done. I know the frustration of delays or missed connections, but there has to be a sense of realism. If you compare the performance to any other airport in the UK we can be proud of BCA. We do apologise when we’ve got it wrong.

With almost two months of sub zero temperatures we had teams working round the clock and I take my hat off to them. We had a review over the weekend and the conclusion of that was that they should have reviewed more de-icing fluid.

Q: What can the airport do to make sure nothing like this happens again?

A: That is the lesson we’ve learned from the review. In the round, if you have sub zero temperatures and out of 3,000 flights, less than 1% are delayed — you never get to perfection in these conditions. Every time there is a delay we always review it and we always try to improve. I think the reason our base is growing is that on the whole passengers recognise they get a good level of service.

Q: Can you appreciate why one passenger described it as a third world service?

A: I can appreciate someone’s frustration, but I would challenge that statement. We use modern equipment, we have a track record that stacks up with any other airport and it doesn’t align with the facts. Anyone is welcome to check and see our equipment. If this is third world, the third world is doing better than I had thought.

Q: Are you concerned that passengers will be tempted to go to other airports?

A: Passengers tend to look at things in the round. If we are performing as well as, or better than other airports, I don’t expect them to look to other airports. If they are looking for airports that have zero delays all winter they aren’t going to find them. The one-hour delay to a flight on Saturday is not something I believe is going to make passengers look elsewhere.

Q: Will other airlines will be tempted to go to other airports?

A: I personally deal with airlines on a regular basis and I believe this is one of the best from which they operate and it’s one of the reasons why a growing number of airlines are operating from here. This winter there were delays in practically every airport in the UK and these were so much more severe than Saturday’s. What an airline will do is compare its experience at BCA with elsewhere and I am consistently told that we outperform other airports.

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