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.