More passenger misery at Terminal 5 as BA faces lawsuit

Airline says it is 'working towards restoring a full operation as soon as it can', but thousands face more cancellations

Jonathan Owen,Brian Brady
Sunday 30 March 2008 02:00

Thousands of passengers faced further misery stranded on the huge concourse at Heathrow's Terminal 5 today, as behind the scenes a "blame game" began over the chaos that has gripped the airport since opening.

Around 15,000 bags are stuck in the terminal baggage system, BA confirmed last night. There was, however, no indication on how long it would take to clear the backlog. Some passengers agreed to travel without their luggage after being told it wouldn't be possible to get it on board. Passengers on domestic flights will have their bags returned by courier, while travellers going overseas must wait for later flights.

BA confirmed that dozens more flights due to leave today have already been cancelled, while insisting it was working "tirelessly" to get to grips with problems that crippled many key areas, including baggage collection, car parking and ticketing.

The airline was placed firmly in the dock yesterday, as trade unions said they had warned BA of its concerns over 2,000 baggage staff not being properly trained to use the new automated baggage handling system.

Unite and the GMB recommended that the airline should stagger the transfer of flights from terminals 1 and 4 over several weeks, rather than moving 380 flights – 70 per cent of the daily total – in one day.

And passengers who took part in a series of dry runs before the official opening complained that management should have been ready for the chaos, following the problems that emerged during the trials.

"I could see this shambles coming a while ago," said one regular flyer from Heathrow. "Among other things, there were even 10- to 15-minute delays at the fast bag drops when only 2,500 people were there."

The Commons Transport Select Committee has launched an inquiry into the debacle. "It was a disaster," said the committee's chair Gwyneth Dunwoody MP: "We need to find out what went wrong and make sure it is put right."

In the aftermath of the disastrous launch last Thursday, which saw thousands of items of lost or baggage delayed and one in five flights being axed, BA is facing a multimillion-pound compensation bid.

With more than 200 flights cancelled since Terminal 5 opened, BAA last night drafted in extra staff to try to clear up baggage problems. It was all a far cry from BA chair Martin Broughton's prediction that Terminal 5 could "put the fun back into flying".

Experts said the situation could get even worse when BA switches long-haul routes to Terminal 5 in a few weeks' time. BA's chief executive, Willie Walsh, admitted that the launch was not BA's "finest hour". "The buck stops with me," he said, adding: "Both British Airways and BAA made mistakes."

Speaking to the IoS last night, a BA spokeswoman pledged: "We are continuing to monitor the situation closely and are working towards restoring a full operation as soon as we can." Her counterpart at BAA claimed the baggage system is working at "100 per cent" and said: "We're absolutely in this together."

So who's to blame?

Staff arrival BAA failed to provide enough parking for employees, and with only one security checkpoint open, this led to an early bottleneck

Baggage conveyors Vanderlande Industries, contracted by BAA, provided sophisticated state-of-the-art equipment. One belt failed completely

Baggage handling Alstec's system, BAA subcontractors, made staff process bags for cancelled flights and neglect pile-up elsewhere

Training BA accused of failing to prepare staff

Customer relations BA misinformed customers on compensation, and refused to provide hotel rooms for delayed passengers.

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