Terminal Failure: What really happened at British Airways’ new T5?


London Heathrow

Fiasco, national humiliation, monumental cock-up were some of the terms used to describe the disastrous opening of British Airways spanking new Terminal 5 at London Heathrow Airport a couple of months ago. And recently the British Parliament heard evidence from management and staff about the now infamous baggage handling system at BA’s flagship terminal, supposed to be the crowning glory of the busiest passenger airport in the world.

Opened with great fanfare (and the Queen) at the end of March, pride quickly turned to embarrassment when its highly touted “state-of-the-art” baggage handling system didn’t work as expected. Tens of thousands of bags went missing, hundreds of flights had to be canceled, passengers were in the dark and the press had a field day. Even now the system doesn’t work as well as promised. What went wrong?

Let me first declare my personal interest in this topic. For one thing, I’m in London for the summer, and this city’s embarrassments are a welcome break from collapsing cranes in New York, and the U.S.’ ever-worsening financial problems, not that the UK papers aren’t filled with equal prophecies of doom and their own local dramas. Still, T5 is worth a look, since it is such a perfect case of the reasons we don’t seem to be able to learn from mistakes.

The truth is that we don’t yet know why things went so drastically awry at Terminal 5, even after years of planning and months of on-the-ground preparations. We do know that BAA, the operator of Heathrow airport, and BA, British Airways, were working together on Terminal 5, but apparently not all that well. We also know that unionized employees claim not to have been consulted about what needed to be done to get things right for the opening, and indeed, as they told members of parliament, concerns they voiced about potential problems well before the terminal officially opened were ignored by BA and BAA managers and key decision-makers.

As I argue in Flirting with Disaster, accidents are rarely accidental, and almost always prefaced by “weak signals,” those early indications — often dismissed by those in charge — that things might well be about to go seriously wrong. This is compounded by the fact that organizations routinely run into problems arising from major change, working with “outsiders,” and communications difficulties — none of which require rocket science to diagnose by just about anyone who has spent any time inside big companies or government departments.

So what does this tell us about T5? First, it seems likely — if not inevitable — that BA and BAA bigwigs knew well in advance that they were in trouble, and that meeting the deadline was unlikely at best. Large, complex projects are inevitably prone to delays from many causes, including “unknown unknowns” that are impossible to predict. Things are even worse when more than one chain of command is involved. But BA had stuck its neck out on the opening date, and was almost certainly going to be embarrassed if it was delayed. This is reminiscent of management at NASA who were hell-bent on launching the space shuttle Challenger on a given date and time, come hell or high water (with the tragic consequences the whole world watched live).

My guess is what happened at BA is what typically happens in this sort of scenario. The various top dogs, who would have to bear the embarrassment of a delayed opening (and let’s not forget that Her Majesty, no less, had been booked for the opening ceremony) told their senior underlings to “get it fixed, no matter what.” That heads would roll if they failed was implied, if not explicitly stated. (Such heads did roll, in fact, and then some.)

What also seems likely, however, is that the top of the two organizations did not pay sufficient attention to the inevitable warnings from these same underlings that the problems might not actually be solvable in the time remaining, edicts from on-high notwithstanding.

But something else must have been in play. The most oft-cited failure underlying the T5 debacle was a lack of staff training. But such an omission is hardly a subtle point. One cannot simply “forget” to train one’s staff on a new and complex system or, for that matter, forget to test such a system under high stress loads. Both BA and BAA are better than that, far better. After all, they successfully run one of the busiest airports in the world.

No, my guess (and it’s only a guess because a thorough investigation with the power to collect documents and compel testimony under oath has yet to occur) is that pride was the culprit here. The guarantee of embarrassment from a delay versus the mere possibility of embarrassment if things didn’t get fixed in time. And here, a common and very human response — so often behind the failure to heed those weak signals I mentioned — comes into play: denial of the real risks. Like the proverbial ostrich, a great many important heads were firmly buried in the sand.

In many past disasters, there are instances in which leaders are willing take huge risks to avoid embarrassment. Did that happen here? I’d certainly love to find out, and you’d think that the British public would want to know too.

On the other hand, people don’t seem to be looking very hard. In fact, everyone seems to be happy with the current non-explanation. The unions are off the hook with their “It never would have happened if they’d talked with us” lament. (Of course, we might ask “Where were the whistleblowers?” in this country with some of the strongest protections for such revelations in the public interest.)

BA and BAA are also off the hook. A few people have been sacked, so we have the emotionally satisfying scapegoats, and the two organizations can point fingers at each other, a convenient way of obscuring the fact that they are both to blame since T5 was always a partnership, and both sides had plenty of reasons and many years to work out their differences.

What is most interesting to me is that the newspapers have made a far bigger point of the fact that over 900 bags a day still “go missing” at T5 than the lack of any real explanation about why things went wrong in the first place. (Actually, the bags don’t disappear, they just miss their connection.) Compared to the thousands that ended up in Turin at the height of the debacle, this is small fry, and it is actually only about 20 percent worse than the Heathrow average — certainly a problem — but hardly worth top billing. Of all the issues that have plagued the startup, this appears to be one that has fact-based operational explanations.

Instead of continued outrage, everyone seems contented with Parliament’s non-investigation. And if you need a reason why these calamities continue to occur, now you have one: no one really wants to get to the bottom of them.



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