Following the disastrous opening of Terminal 5, Airport Middle East discusses the fall of British Airways and its road to recovery.
Between extreme weather and emergency crash landings, British Airways had already experienced its fair share of crises this year. The long anticipated move to Terminal 5 was meant to be the start of a new era for Britain's national carrier.
But despite months of preparation, the new hub was plagued with problems from the outset and its inauguration did not go according to the airline's carefully laid out plan. However, according to its Middle East and Pakistan commercial manager, Paul Starrs, customers in the region should not be concerned.
Ongoing struggles with the baggage handling system have led to delays in the transfer of its long-haul flights to the new building, meaning aircraft will continue to depart from T4 as normal. Starrs regards the deferral as a blessing in disguise.
I'm concerned that people won't be booking with us, that's why I'm pleased that we've decided to delay the flight switch. The short-haul operation that moved into T5 wasn't up to the standard people wanted from the carrier and this will enable us to carry on with the expected level of service."
He adds that although a small number of passengers with connecting flights in Terminal 5 have experienced difficulties, for the majority it has been plain sailing. When the hub chaos hit the headlines last month, the airline was widely criticised by the media for biting off more than it could chew.
To rectify the situation, the delay of the long-haul services has been publicised on the British Airports Authority (BAA) website by chief executive Willie Walsh.
We are making this decision in the interest of our customers," he says. "Although Terminal 5 is now working well, we need to have confidence that good service can be maintained when the terminal is handling large numbers of customers.
As of yet, there are no precise dates for the switch, although the company has said the move will be broken down into phases to avoid any further disruptions. In addition, BA is working hard to ensure customers are fully informed about their flights.
We need to communicate changes to customers because one of the things that will be impacted by this is the timing of connections," says Starrs.
Many customers thought they were flying into T5 and they're now flying into T4, so we're busy calling all those customers, amending the bookings and basically letting everybody know which terminal they will use.
Thankfully operations between T4 and T5 are running smoothly, with a bus service in place to ferry passengers between terminals.
None the less, several other airlines have argued that BA's mismanagement of the Terminal 5 move has put them at a disadvantage. "It's an absolutely outrageous announcement by BAA and done with no thought, consideration or consultation of any airline other than BA," says Nigel Turner, CEO of BMI, London Heathrow's second biggest airline. "The sequence of moves affects over 50 airlines, including BMI at Heathrow.
The programme and timescale of changes was agreed in joint consultation with all airlines that are now geared up to undertake the moves as agreed."
He argues that BAA is treating airlines and passengers with contempt and that the company has no consideration for the consultation process that took "considerable time" to finalise in terms of terminal moves.
Colin Matthews, BAA's chief executive, says that the company will do everything possible to minimise the knock-on effects the delay may cause. "BAA regrets this postponement, and we recognise the impact it has on other airlines.
But we believe it is a wise precaution to ensure that passengers can have the maximum confidence once the move does take place.
He adds that although BAA recognises that Terminal 5's inauguration did not go to plan, passengers have seen considerable improvements since the first few days of opening.
The baggage handling system, which was supposed to be the largest and most sophisticated in Europe, remains the biggest crisis for BA. The high-tech computer controlled system should be able to handle 12,000 bags per hour and passengers were told they could deposit their luggage in one of 96 fast bag drops situated around the airport.
To speed up the process further, the airport has deployed lifts which are designed to drop the bags into an 18km network of belts and tracks.
In addition, scanners are used to read baggage tags and should be able to direct each piece towards the correct flight. But due to technical glitches the system failed in the first few hours, leaving a backlog of undelivered bags and hundreds of passengers stranded without their luggage.
Many suitcases were not delivered until weeks after they were first mislaid and there were several reports of luggage being dirty or damaged upon return.
According to Starrs, the company's management are in daily dialogue with BAA and both are working together to resolve the issue as quickly as possible. "There are still problems with the software and with the ability to make sure bags are going in the right place.
There have also been bugs in the system, but all of this is being worked on in an attempt to try and fix it," he says.
There has been widespread concern about how the hub disaster will effect BA's reputation as one of the world's leading airlines. Starrs is confident that once the problems have been ironed out they will be back on track.
"We let customers down, we have admitted that and apologised. We believed we were going to have a fully functional baggage system and a fully functional airport when we moved in.
Although the current delays are not helping matters, the carrier still has faith that once this is resolved, T5 will be "viewed as one of the best and premier airports in the world".
And if the hub does manage to recover, BA, as principal carrier, will win back its reputation. After suffering a US$31.6 million loss, the airline does recognise that the road to recovery may be a long one.
We've got some catching up to do with our customers, but I think the brand is strong enough to weather this particular storm," says Starrs.
After apologising to passengers, BA is keen to get back on track and promote the positive aspects of the new terminal. It is home to six lounges, the Concorde room, the first class lounge, three club lounges and an arrivals area.
Collectively known as the 'galleries', these have already proved popular amongst travellers. In addition Starrs says the airport's 'no queues' system is running very smoothly, with passengers able to check-in up to 24 hours before departure in the comfort of their homes.
Once the baggage handling system is fully operational, passengers should be able to reach security in 10 minutes.
Starrs believes that some of the problems from the first day were just teething problems that have since been resolved.
"We'd been in T5 about six months before and we were doing lots of testing," he states. "I think the issues that happened on the day were just lots of little things and collectively they caused the problems over the next few days.
I think it's almost inevitable, if you look at the other major airport moves around the world, there is going to be some disruption whilst people get used to a brand new process.
After sorting some of these smaller issues, BA is now running a full schedule out of T5.
The lack of staff car parking spaces meant many baggage handlers were late for work. According to reports many were still driving round whilst passengers were checking in their bags.
Not enough security staff were available to let workers into the building and when employees were finally inside the building a programming error prevented them from logging onto the system. Despite months of planning, the state-of-the-art programme had not been tested in a live terminal.
BA said that each baggage handler received five days training but critics argued that staff knowledge on these new systems was totally inadequate.
The transit system that moves passengers from the main T5 building to the satellite Terminal 5B broke down, adding to the disruption.