When IT fails…

By | Category: Travel rumblings

tal fins of British Airways planesYesterday thousands of passengers about to travel on British Airways flights flew nowhere.

The reason was because the IT systems at British Airways failed.  Why? At present there is no answer. Claims that it was a cyber attack have, so far, been dismissed by the airline. The whole computer system went down leaving passengers stranded around the world because flights couldn’t be co-ordinated; passengers couldn’t be checked and there were media images of long queues and baggage piled up in airport lounges. Sound familiar?

A few years’ ago, there were similar pictures when the baggage carousels broke down at Terminal 5 at Heathrow. Last year the American airline, Delta, had a major IT breakdown and flights were cancelled for a while as it sorted things out. In both these cases (excuse the pun) communication with passengers was heavily criticised.

And now the same thing has happened again. Passengers almost seemed to queue up to tell television stations that they had been told nothing. Have airlines and airports learnt so little over the years that they cannot keep passengers informed?

Providing answers to passengers and dealing with passenger angst is something that all companies dealing directly with the public train their staff to do. BA spends considerable sums on training yet, as in other cases as well, passenger complaints are widely expressed. Regardless of spend and training, customer service is not perceived to have improved when a problem occurs. Why? Do passengers expect too much by wanting to be told something every few minutes? Is there not really a problem because it is over-hyped by the media who search out anyone who is prepared to moan? News stories aren’t leads if interviewees only say that “we were told what was going on.” What media seek are the bride whose wedding is ruined, the birthday party once-in-a-lifetime trip that becomes a fiasco or the family going on holiday for which they have saved up for years and which has been ruined because they only have the week of half term in which to take it. Each of these appeared on the news bulletins yesterday and, yes, their travel plans have been destroyed to the extent that they will probably never forget them.

I suspect that a problem of the size that occurred yesterday can never be adequately handled by training and customer service manuals. Passengers will never be totally satisfied when a problem of this magnitude occurs.

Some claimed that the IT outage meant that the airline couldn’t inform its own staff about what was going on. But that is not true because there such things as phones. And some positive comments have been made. At least one pilot walked through his plane talking at some length to passengers about the situation. Even if he knew nothing, the fact that he did this rather than just make an announcement from the cockpit shows that some people have a feeling for customer service at a time when some staff feel the best thing was to hide.

panoramic view of Heathrow

Heathrow shoudl explain why it had no contingency plans to offload passengers…

Planes that had landed at either Gatwick or Heathrow couldn’t pull up to the gates so that passengers could disembark. This is one aspect of Saturday that needs a thorough investigation. Why couldn’t passengers be disembarked instead of having to wait on planes for hours and hours? One answer given was that because the terminals were so busy and that adding exiting passengers would make matters worse.

Do airports not have a back-up plan? If the gates were blocked with planes that couldn’t leave why not park planes elsewhere and move passengers by coach? The busy terminal problem was undoubtedly real so why not use a vacant hanger/building to take the passengers, their baggage as well as some passport control staff and check things manually? Then passengers could be bussed to an area from where they could leave the airport. Airports, and in particular, Gatwick and Heathrow should announce whether they have a contingency plan if such a situation arises again.

As an alternative to not being able to deplane passengers why couldn’t planes be diverted to, for example, Southampton or Stansted, where they could be cleared and then bussed either railway stations or back to the airports to collect their cars?

But why was the IT outage so damaging? Many companies have a back-up system in the case of a “catastrophic” breakdown. They can switch to a mirror site some miles away which is a replica IT system already to takeover when the buttons are pushed. It has planned in case of fire, flooding or a power failure so that the business can operate as normal and not lose revenue other than for a short time. It appears that British Airways (and Delta) do not have such a system in place. Investors should ask why not especially as the bill that BA will face after this episode will not be cheap.


…as should Gatwick

As of 10 am on Sunday, BA says that its systems are working again although one report in the last hour suggests that this is not the case. Even if they are, BA will not be able to fit two days’ worth of passengers into one so some people will not get away on their flights today. It will probably take a few days to clear all passengers. People are being advised to check the website (there was a farcical sentence in the Guardian online yesterday suggesting readers look at the BA website despite the fact that it had been down as well,) now that it is back up and running. The advice for passengers is not come to the airports today (Sunday) unless you have a confirmed booking for travel. If you were due to travel yesterday, do not automatically assume that you will be on a flight today; check with the BA website or helpline first. But the BA website hasn’t been updated since 23.30 last night. They really should try to post something every few hours even if only to apologise (which they have consistently done) or to see they will update the site every two hours. Even telling passengers they don’t know helps make passengers feel that at least BA is trying to resolve the problem.

BA will handle compensation claims and, in the past, has been one of the airlines which does process claims quickly. Under EU261, passengers are entitled to compensation for delay and, in most cases, this will be over four hours so on short-haul flights it will amount to €400 and on long-haul flights – €600 per person. In addition, you will be re-booked and, although not yet announced, I suspect that BA will refund any monies paid if you decide to cancel your holiday altogether. You are also entitled to food and drink as a result of the delay and accommodation charges last night if you were lucky enough to find accommodation.

People that took a taxi to the airport only to hear during the journey that all flights for the day had been cancelled and turned around and went back home should also claim for that taxi fare. As ever, the golden rule is keep hold of all receipts.

That this IT problem occurred on one of the busiest travel days of the year makes the cynic in me wonder that either the system was incapable of supporting all the requirements that were wanted or that it was a cyber attack and that the airline has never tested the system to find out what it would do in such a situation. It has learnt the hard way. As have passengers.

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