Here's some glitch déjà vu from 2008, namely another baggage system miscue involving British Airways (BA) at Heathrow International Airport in London. As you may remember, in March 2008, BA and Heathrow operator British Airports Authority (now known as Heathrow Airport Holdings) opened the long-awaited BA Terminal 5 with great fanfare, with BAA loudly proclaiming the “world-class” baggage system was “tried, tested and ready to go.” No Denver International Airport baggage system-like problems for them! And BA's deservedly poor reputation as the top airline for losing luggage would finally be over.
Of course, such publicly-stated optimism over the reliability of automation is rarely left unpunished. Almost immediately, a massive meltdown of the baggage system on the first day of T5’s operation led to more than 28,000 passenger bags piled high across the terminal, hundreds more being lost, and some 15 percent of BA flights being cancelled over the course of nearly a week. It took three weeks before the majority of bags were reunited with passengers. The extreme embarrassment for both BA and Heathrow management because of the incident was acute, as was BA passenger rage, to say the least.
The nightmares of that week have slowly receded from BA passengers' memories. That is, until Friday, 27 June, when London papers like the Daily Mail reported that T5’s automated baggage system had suffered another major IT failure, with bags having to be handled manually again. As a result, thousands of BA passengers were sent (unknowingly) on their way without their luggage, including those passengers transiting through London via T5. The Mail quoted a BA spokesperson as saying, “On Thursday morning, the baggage system in Terminal 5 suffered an IT problem which affected how many bags could be accepted for each flight… We are very sorry for the difficulties this has caused and we have been working hard with the airport to make sure we reunite all of our customers with their luggage as quickly as possible.”
The BA spokesperson failed to point out that the phrase “how many bags could be accepted for each flight” actually meant no bags were accompanying their owners on an untold number of BA flights. BA also insisted to the press that they stop saying that passenger bags were lost; the bags merely “missed” their flights, BA pouted.
A short two-paragraph Heathrow Airport Holdings press release did BA one better at trying to downplay the baggage system problem, stating that it affected only “some bags,” and that flights were in fact operating “normally.” You have to love press statements that are totally true but also totally disingenuous.
BA passengers on Thursday were naturally displeased at traveling without their bags, but at least they got to their destination, unlike those flying out of T5 last September, when another but very short-lived IT problem with the baggage system prevented hundreds of passengers from ever boarding their flights and had to be rebooked onto new ones, many the next day.
While BA passengers from June 27 were naturally miffed, what BA and Heathrow’s operator failed to make clear until early this week was that the “intermittent” IT problems with T5’s baggage system had actually begun on Thursday, 26 June and continued well into Sunday, 29 June. I am sure that many BA passengers flying out of T5 on June 28 and 29 would have changed airlines if they knew the full extent of the baggage problems. Conveniently, neither BA nor the airport operator came forward with the information about the multi-day operational problem until Tuesday, 1 July. Nor have they disclosed the total number of bags or passengers inconvenienced.
Both BA and Heathrow Airport Holdings are in damage control mode as BA passengers, many of them famous, have taken to social media to lambast them both. Many passengers, for example, have complained that when they finally did receive their bags, they had been ransacked with items stolen from them. Others complained that their journeys were over by the time their bags finally reached them.
BA put out another press release blaming international airline security rules for bags being opened as well as being delayed, and further promised to look into the ransacking claims. A BA spokesperson went on to apologize, stating that, “We are very sorry that this process is taking longer than anticipated, and we fully understand the frustration that this is causing.” Heathrow Airport Holdings new CEO John Holland-Kaye also apologized, saying the IT problem had taken too long to resolve and that airport needs “to do better.” Disclosing IT problems while they are occurring would be a good start.
The BA spokesperson went on to warn that it would still take “several days” before all the bags that “missed” their flights are reunited with their owners. BA also indicated that because of the number of bags involved, its bag tracking system was not working as it should, which could further add to the delays.
BA is reminding its customers flying out of T5 that, “You may wish to carry essential items in hand baggage where possible.” That is probably good advice. ComputerWorldUK reports that Heathrow Airport Holdings is remaining very tight-lipped over what caused the baggage system fault and why it took four days to fix it, which is rarely a good sign that everything is under control.
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Robert N. Charette is a Contributing Editor to IEEE Spectrum and an acknowledged international authority on information technology and systems risk management. A self-described “risk ecologist,” he is interested in the intersections of business, political, technological, and societal risks. Charette is an award-winning author of multiple books and numerous articles on the subjects of risk management, project and program management, innovation, and entrepreneurship. A Life Senior Member of the IEEE, Charette was a recipient of the IEEE Computer Society’s Golden Core Award in 2008.