Analysis: Heathrow Terminal 5 bosses quizzed over opening day chaos

BA boss Willie Walsh and BAA counterpart Colin Matthews appeared before MPs last week to explain how Heathrow’s Terminal 5 descended into chaos on its opening day. Ian Taylor reports

The heads of British Airways and Heathrow operator BAA would not have expected a sympathetic hearing from MPs investigating the debacle of the opening days at Terminal 5. They didn’t get one.

The Commons transport select committee began in hostile mood. After listening for more than an hour to BAA chief executive Colin Matthews and the airport operator’s chairman Nigel Rudd, it appeared more hostile still.

At one point, Labour’s Graham Stringer (MP for Manchester Blackley) told Matthews: “You have not been helpful.” Another committee member accused those responsible for Terminal 5 of making “a fool of the country” and asked the BAA pair: “Are you hiding anything?”

A stream of announcements in the run-up to the opening promised state-of-the-art ­architecture and systems, an end to queuing and a transformation of Heathrow. Instead, BA was forced to cancel 500 flights. Hundreds more were delayed and more than 23,000 passengers took off without their bags.

The blame game

“With hindsight,” said Matthews, “we might have adopted a more humble position.”

The BAA bosses shed little light on what went wrong as the terminal opened on March 27 and refused to apportion blame.

Matthews told the committee: “We have devoted all our resources to fixing the problems and not on analysing what went wrong. I have not sought to blame others. With hindsight, there were aspects that were not ready. But within a few days of its opening, the terminal was operating well.”

Walsh agreed and blamed the problems principally on a failure to familiarise BA staff with the terminal as a result of building work over-running its September 2007 deadline.

“We believed T5 was ready to open on March 27,” he said. “It is clear we made mistakes and compromised on the testing regime. There was insufficient familiarisation because of delays in completing the building.”

Asked if he was aware of problems in advance, Walsh said: “Yes. Quite a number of people expressed concerns – although a lot of things people expressed concern about worked well on the day.”

He admitted he had considered postponing the opening and said: “We discussed it internally every week. We ­discussed scaling it down – we did scale it down. Originally we planned to move all operations in one go. Following a review, we split the move.”

However, staging the move risked confusing passengers, he said: “We could not have some flights to Paris going from Terminal 1 and others from Terminal 5.”

Catalogue of errors

In the event, 50% of passengers and 54% of baggage moved on the first day. “We felt that was manageable,” said Walsh. “The complexity of delaying weighed heavily on us. A delay of six months to the winter season was the only real option.

“BAA would have put pressure on us to move, but I don’t think they could have forced us. If we had not gone ahead the cost would have been significantly greater than the cost of the problems and delay now.”

Those problems were due to a number of factors, he said. “It began with staff being delayed at car parking, then at security. Staff were not as familiar with the terminal as they should have been.

"There were also software issues. It would be unfair to say the baggage problem was to blame. The design of the baggage system is good. It was a combination of problems.”

Walsh went on: “We understand at least 95% of the issues on the opening day. We planned six months of full testing from September to March and we compromised on that. If there was a single issue, it was that.”

There were problems with the interface between software systems, he conceded, and the IT server at the heart of the luggage system had been overloaded. There were also issues with handheld devices that assign jobs to staff.

“I would not say [that system] is working as well as we would expect,” said Walsh.

Other problems occurred with the jetties giving access to aircraft, chiefly due to staff being unfamiliar with new equipment.

BAA was ‘unaware’

Matthews’ explanation was broadly in line with that of the BA boss. However, the BAA chief executive appeared to contradict Walsh in one respect. Asked if the committee should focus on the baggage system and software issues, he said: “That is reasonable.”

He agreed: “There was not one problem.” But he largely dismissed a catalogue of issues suggested by one MP – including security delays, lifts not working, jetties failing and technical problems on aircraft stands. Matthews revealed 28 out of 275 lifts did not work on the first day and 17 are still not working.

“There were some delays to staff early on. At 4am there was a queue in the car parks because not enough barriers were open, but we fixed that, and one jetty had a technical fault.” He added: “We have kept very low queueing times at passenger-search areas since the opening days.”

Matthews insisted he had been unaware of problems in advance, although it beggars belief BAA as a whole should be oblivious. Matthews only took over as chief executive on April 1, having begun work two weeks earlier. His predecessor Stephen Nelson was still in post on the terminal’s opening day.

‘Shame on the UK’

Walsh declined to apportion blame or to discuss the sudden departure last month of two executives responsible for the move to T5 – director of operations Gareth Kirkwood and customer services director David Noyes.

He said: “The decisions rest with me and I’m prepared to be held accountable. But I have no intention of resigning.”

He rebuffed a suggestion that problems remain, saying: “In the main, Terminal 5 is working better now than our historical performance at Terminal 4. The opening was a disaster. But at this stage, T5 has exceeded our expectations.”

Walsh felt sufficiently confident to turn the criticism back at the politicians when, in response to an MP who argued the opening had brought shame on the country, he said: “Heathrow has been an ­embarrassment for years and has suffered largely because of insufficient runway capacity.

"I hope this has brought into focus [the fact] that Heathrow is essential to the country’s infrastructure.”

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