Heathrow’s T5, Criminals, and “Teething Problems”

I have written a couple of times about Heathrow’s now infamous Terminal 5 and the reason I find it so interesting is, aside from the usual schadenfreude enjoyed at the expense of overconfident CEOs, is that it’s a perfect example of how the important intersection of people, process, and technology is rarely smoothly paved.

Like most public failures, the truth is found somewhere in between two extremes. I don’t think that BAA delivered a fatally flawed airport terminal system to BA, and I don’t believe that pure incompetence on the part of BA is responsible for the failures to date. It’s far more likely that a combination of poor training, poor planning, a rush to meet a schedule, and finally, systems that were not optimally configured are likely for the failures.

I found this interesting link which points to BA’s dissatisfaction with their new terminal earlier this year, prior to opening. What is interesting about it is that BA focused their concerns on “the backoffice” of airport operations rather than what happens from when you walk into the front door to the checkin terminal, suggesting that they were clearly overconfident about the things that ultimately ended up failing.

However, sometimes you have to approach something like this orthogonally. I recalled reading a story about organized crime at Heathrow and thought this would be something worth poking to see what came up:

Dispatches has obtained a restricted document which reveals just how grave the situation was deemed by ministers to be. As a direct result of this document and Government pressure, the Metropolitan Police formed ‘Operation Grafton’ to deal with Heathrow-related crimes. This operation discovered sophisticated criminal networks which stretched from within the airport to surrounding areas – identifying one village nearby in particular as having a ‘criminal element’.

I asked a friend who is with Scotland Yard’s anti-terrorism task force about this, his response was indeed stunning and sobering at the same time. He basically said that while some of the problems at T5 are indeed the mundane kind of things related to a massive new building with new systems, he also suggested that there is another more sinister factor at work here.

It is widely known that organized crime is operating from within Heathrow and that it has gone on for generations. Crime at Heathrow has become institutionalized much like the Mafia here in the U.S. and drug trafficking. For the 3 years that the MP ran their operation at Heathrow they made little progress, and BA’s own security force has been even less effective. A former regimental seargant major with combat experience in Ulster and beyond quit BA Security after being appointed to investigate crime in the baggage handling areas, his resignation believed to be the result of death threats from the criminal gangs operating in the baggage areas.

It is believed that the baggage problems at Heathrow are at least partially the result of a war that is taking place within the airport between the criminal gangs, BAA, and BA. Part of the terminal move included a new screening procedure that was supposed to eliminate, or at least reduce, the criminal element at work in the baggage areas, and it is believed that the gangs are now actively disrupting T5’s operation as part of a guerilla war within the airport to determine who really runs it.

It’s unlikely that BA is willing to adopt an acceptable loss policy to quell the insurrection, so the next few months will be interesting to watch indeed, although I wouldn’t bet on reading much about this angle in the media as they are having well engaged in the narrative that BA’s clumsy handling of the transition is to blame.

Taken to an extreme it is not unreasonable to imagine something akin to the Miners’ Strike of the early 1980’s that resulted in breaking organized labor in British coal mining.

Willie Fiddles While T5 Burned

UPDATE: hat tip to Jackie Danicki for sending me this link via twitter.

yeah, I always have a string quartet at my “staff communication events”. Seriously, did this spokeswoman comprehend the idiocy of that statement before saying it? With so many flights canceled in the first three days, 20% of the European flights yesterday alone, they must have a warehouse full of those “free gifts” on hand.

A spokeswoman said: “It was not a party – it was a staff communication event. There was a string quartet, doughnuts and food but we would not describe that as a party. Free gifts were given out but they were the same items passengers received on the plane.

[From BA’S bosses partied as as Heathrow Terminal Five crashed – Sunday Mirror]

(note the red footprints on the floor behind Willie, most surely a sign of the blood that will be spilled as a result of this massive PR disaster, the financial bill owed to passengers under EU rules, and embarrassment to the UK government.)


Man Machine Failures Plague Heathrow Terminal Opening

Heathrow’s Terminal 5 opened yesterday with a resounding thud that left travelers and employees stranded and BAA and British Airways officials red faced and shamed. This is as much a failure of man as it is the systems that have been designed and implemented.

There is simply no excuse for employees not being able to log on, baggage systems not synchronized with baggage handler actions, insufficient parking for employees, and a traveler information system that failed and then ground to a halt with literally thousands of travelers in the terminal.

Rumor also has it that the much talked about biometric system that fingerprints travelers wasn’t blocked by regulators but because the system failed to work in the days approaching the launch. Seriously, BAA (the airport operator) can’t really expect anyone to believe that government regulators who knew about the system while it was being considered, designed, and then implemented, waited until the days leading up to the terminal opening to say “no dice”.

All I can say is that my strategy to avoid Heathrow for connection and destination flights will remain in force. If I’m connecting I’ll fly into Frankfurt and if I need to be in London I’ll get a direct flight to Gatwick instead. It also makes me wonder if London is really able to pull together the massive logistics challenge that is the modern day Olympics.

Computer glitches and other problems plunged London’s Heathrow airport into chaos for a second straight day on Friday, causing British Airways to cancel numerous flights.

[From British Airways Cancels Heathrow Flights Amid Computer Chaos — Heathrow Airport — InformationWeek]