Select Committee on Transport Twelfth Report

1  Introduction

1.  BAA opened Heathrow's fifth terminal for business on 27 March, after six years of construction at a cost of £4.3bn, on time and within budget. Passengers had been promised a "calmer, smoother, simpler airport experience".[1] Multiple problems, however, meant that on the first day of operation alone, 36,584 passengers were frustrated by the 'Heathrow hassle' that Terminal 5 (T5) had been designed to eliminate.[2] What should have been an occasion of national pride was in fact an occasion of national embarrassment. Problems were experienced with the baggage system, car parking, security searches and aspects of the building itself. When the baggage system failed, luggage piled up to such an extent that it was transported by road to be sorted off-site. According to British Airways, 23,205 bags required manual sorting before being returned to their owners.[3] We found that most of these problems were caused by one of two main factors: insufficient communication between owner and operator, and poor staff training and system testing. Over the course of our inquiry, we were pleased to find that steps were being taken at all levels to address the problems at the source of T5's problems.

2.  During questions following a statement to the House on 31 March 2008 on T5 by the Minister (Jim Fitzpatrick), the then Chairman of the Committee, the late Gwyneth Dunwoody, asked:

"Will the Minister press both BAA and BA to answer some simple questions? How much training was given to baggage handlers? What facilities were available for people to get to work efficiently and on time? What is the real timetable for putting things back into operation after these disasters? If we do not have the answers to those questions soon, not only will the problem continue but it will continue to make Heathrow a disaster area."[4]

3.  The Minister commented that "my hon. Friend and her Committee will take a keen interest in these matters".[5] We invited BAA, British Airways and Unite to explain what happened before, during and after the opening of Heathrow's fifth terminal. During our first session on 7 May, we took evidence from BAA and British Airways. Representatives from BAA were unable to answer many of our questions, but committed themselves to providing a supplementary memorandum and appearing again if we had further questions. They did so on 9 July, when representatives from Unite gave the perspective of the many workers who bore the brunt of the public frustration, and those who struggled behind the scenes. Between evidence sessions, we visited T5 to see for ourselves where things went wrong and what British Airways and BAA had done to address the problems. We were concerned that during our first evidence session, representatives from BAA were unhelpful and ill-prepared. They provided us with no satisfactory explanation as to how this national embarrassment had been allowed to unfold.

4.  In The future of BAA, we concluded that "serious questions [have been] raised over mismanagement of resources and failure to plan adequately for contingencies which were far from unexpected, let alone inconceivable […] [BAA] should have predicted the predictable, and planned accordingly".[6] In our 2007 report on Passengers' Experiences of Air Travel, we noted that "lost and mishandled baggage is one of the biggest areas of complaint for air passengers".[7] British Airways has the sole use of T5, and in 2007, 26.5 of every 1,000 bags it handled were subject to delay, according to the Association of European Airlines.[8] This was the second-worst performance of the AEA's twenty-six members. It was hoped that the level of integration offered by the new system at T5 would change this.

5.  The baggage handling system around which T5 is constructed was designed by Vanderlande Industries of the Netherlands in conjunction with IBM technology and Alstec, which operates the system. Vanderlande has constructed baggage handling systems for many of the world's largest hub airports, including Hong Kong International Airport (1998) and Amsterdam Airport Schiphol (2001). Although the system employs no unproven technology, the scale of the system at T5 is greater than anywhere else in the world.[9]

6.  The opening of a new airport or terminal carries a significant degree of risk. Many major openings have been affected by problems such as those experienced at T5. Denver Airport in particular (1995) experienced serious problems with its baggage handling system. Kuala Lumpar's airport (1997) and Hong Kong International (1998) also experienced problems, notably with lack of staff familiarity. The chances of there being serious disruption when the 'ON' switch is pressed are undeniable. However, at a press conference held a fortnight before T5 opened, BAA's strategy director Mike Forster is quoted as having said "We have a world-class baggage system that is going to work perfectly on day one".[10] A full account of what didn't work on day one, and for some time thereafter, is given in both BAA's and British Airways' written evidence to the Committee.[11]

7.  BAA stated in its written evidence to the Committee that "the opening of Terminal 5 carried inherent risks".[12] As we discovered, several of these inherent risks combined with one another, resulting in the disruption that occurred at the end of March. Although there was no ministerial responsibility involved, we felt it was important to publish a brief summary of the evidence we received.

1   "Final preparations for Terminal 5", British Airways press release, 18 March 2008 Back

2   Ev 53 Back

3   Ev 54 Back

4   HC Deb 31 March 2008, col 431 Back

5   Ibid. Back

6   Fourth Report of Session 2007-08, The future of BAA, HC 119, para 62 Back

7   Eighth Report of Session 2006-07, Passengers' Experiences of Air Travel, HC 435-I, para 121 Back

8   "AEA consumer report for 4th quarter and annual 2007", Association of European Airlines, Back

9   "Terminal 5: Information", BAA, Back

10   "Unions had warned BA that 'Big Bang' move would cause chaos", The Times, 29 March 2008, p 36 Back

11   Ev 43-44; Ev 53-55 Back

12   Ev 42 Back

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