T5 a chip off the old block

Cancelled flights, lost baggage, huge queues - business as usual for the opening of Heathrow terminal 5

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Yesterday’s grand opening began well enough, but trouble with the terminal’s 'state of the art' baggage systems mean that things soon degenerated into an unmitigated PR disaster and what must be a candidate for BA boss Willie Walsh’s worst day of the year. 34 flights were cancelled and arriving passengers had to wait hours to get off their planes, and again for their bags to emerge from the bowels of the £4.3bn terminal.

But it was departing passengers who had the worst time of it - by lunchtime they were no longer allowed to check any luggage into the hold at all and had to travel with cabin baggage only. Those who couldn’t could choose between a night in the airport or £100 towards the cost of an overnight stay, when the local hotels were reportedly charging twice as much. Unlikely to leave anyone with much change to spend in T5’s branch of Harrods, or the Gordon Ramsay restaurant. BA top bosses were conspicuous by their absence, with only operations director Gareth Kirkwood daring to face the cameras to offer a brief apology last night. [Update: Willie Walsh came out of hiding today to tell passengers that 'the buck stops with me'. Hhe also admitted that the transfer of all BA's Heathrow services to T5 may now be postponed.]

BA’s rivals - who have been complaining long and loud about how unfair it is that the airline should have exclusive access to the swish new facility - must all be enjoying the chaos hugely. There’s nothing like a bit of schadenfreude to get the weekend off to a flying start.

Perhaps most humiliating of all is the admission that the baggage failures are apparently less a result of problems with the immensely sophisticated IT systems, and more to do with the inability of handling staff to a) find somewhere to park b) get through security clearance and c) find their way to where they are supposed to be. So now they know how passengers feel, all the time.

BA says that teething problems are inevitable with a project of this scale - T5 has been called the largest European civil engineering project since the Channel Tunnel. That’s undoubtedly true, but just begs the question why the airline didn’t do more to prepare itself and its customers for what is turning out to be a pretty bumpy ride.

The dust hasn’t settled yet - BA says that today it is planning to operate only 80% of scheduled flights - but the row over whether blame lies with BA or BAA is already starting. Whatever the outcome of this unedifying spectacle, it’s unlikely to be good news for BAA and will doubtless add urgency to the calls for the Spanish owned airport operator to be broken up. If you have to fly out of T5 this weekend - good luck!

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