What a disgrace

by Volker Weber


In the world’s busiest airport you need to feel confident that while you’re heading through security and to your aircraft, your bag is doing the same. The Terminal 5 baggage system gives you that peace of mind. 18km of conveyer belts and intelligent baggage carts running on 4.5km of rails take your bag to your gate in around 15 minutes - particularly impressive given the size of Terminal 5. High-tech hoists take your baggage and inject it into the baggage system. Tracking technology means we always know where your baggage is. The new system can easily cope with longer items such as golf clubs. Last minute baggage can be sent automatically via a series of tunnels straight to the gate. Overall, the system can handle 12,000 bags an hour, moving them as fast as 30mph.

And practice:

The number of bags stuck at Heathrow is double the number admitted by British Airways, the aviation minister has disclosed, accusing the Terminal 5 fiasco of "denting the nation's pride". Jim Fitzpatrick said passengers using the £4.3 billion terminal had suffered and "unacceptably poor experience" and delivery had fallen "well short of expectation."

BA has been forced to scrap more than 450 flights since the opening of Terminal 5 last week Mr Fitzpatrick said 28,000 bags were now stranded, rather than the 15,000 admitted by the airline over the weekend. He added it could take up to a week for the bags to be reunited with their owners.

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Makes a Brit feel so proud. T5 was delivered on time and on budget—a rarity in the UK. And then BA go and snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.

Too many project managers, not enough people with common sense in charge methinks.

Jeff Atwood’s post Just a Little Bit of Software History Repeating outlines matters well.

Ben Poole, 2008-03-31

Baggage system problems at new airport terminals are as common as dirt. I'm sure this is the grandfather of all such problems, but I seem to recall equally difficult times for passengers who first flew through Denver's Stapleton airport were in even worse shape.

A quick online check seems to indicate that BAE systems ended up utterly failing on that baggage system and that several major carriers simply gave up using it.

Heathrow's T5 with all the international baggage requirements has to make that system look like child's play.

While we can all say how it should have been gradual, we're not there. which flights would move first? Would all connecting passengers have to transit and re-customs going to other terminals? Would that even be manageable?

If its still not working right in a few weeks, then I'll add my disgust to the equation.

Andrew Pollack, 2008-03-31

Ben, read through the comments until you get to what is really happening. They put faith in the technology and forgot about the people part. They can get the baggage to the planes, but not on them for simple baggage handler problems:

- Inability to park- Inability to get into the building- Knowing where to pick up baggage from for a given flightWhat they actually did was give existing handlers from Terminal 1 five days' training on the new system, but not really using it in practice, then told them to turn up at T5 instead of T1 last Tuesday morning. Result, everyone tries to park in the same space (and circumnavigating Heathrow to park somewhere else is really hard as the roads jam up completely with even the slightest incident on the M4) and no-one can get to work on time.

Volker Weber, 2008-03-31

Volker, exactly: an utter lack of common sense. For example, no-one asked people with extensive knowledge of baggage handling how to solve the logistics of running something like Terminal 5, they just seemed to rely on business analysis and the “silver bullet” of IT.

As for the scale of the enterprise Andrew, T5 is for BA flights operating from Heathrow, it’s not an entire airport. Whilst I don’t doubt that this still means a hell of a lot of flights, the (relatively) smooth operation of such a terminal should be achievable in this day and age.

Ben Poole, 2008-03-31

I was at Heathrow a couple of days ago - thankfully not flying via T5. I spoke to a shuttle bus driver who told me that they weren't allowed to use the roads to/from T5 until the first day it was opened. No chance to familiarise themselves previously.

On the first day it was opened, they had people in yellow jackets directing the traffic - the only problem was, that even they didn't know the route the shuttles should take to get between the terminals.

If that was the level of preparation generally, it's hardly surprising it was a shambles.

Perhaps they should have involved Siemens in the test phase?

John Keys, 2008-03-31

@Ben - I'm no expert on such things, but would bet that BA's flights in and out of Heathrow constitute, but themselves, an airport that would rank among the largest in the world. Add to that the number of those flights from non-EU locations and the customs segregation which must be required and I can't begin to imagine the complexity. It has to make Denver look like small potatoes -- if not in size, than certainly in complexity.

Andrew Pollack, 2008-04-01

I plainly hate LHR for it´s erratic and bizarre behaviour with on-board luggage. As I refuse to put my leather Tumi in the hands of inconsiderates, I actually plan my trips around the regulations on carry-on, stuff that may not enter the carry-ons etc. (!).

The problem is, they change their ideas every other week without telling anybody. I had to check in one bag just a few weeks ago (without planning to do so), only to find out afterwards I had left some valuable items in the outer, open pocket.

So, I needed to get the bag back, lost my flight, check in again - all due to some changing policy on behalf of "the authorities" and some inconsiderate Indian hand standing at the entrance to the gates denying me to enter.

All of this in complete ignorance on airline´s regulations (for C-class fares or gold-card-holders) on hand-luggage and without making sense at all to anybody (including the Indian guy).

Why make somebody to have to use the non-working baggage system anyways? What are these people smoking?

Armin Roth, 2008-04-01

Check out the petition:


----* Bill

Bill Buchan, 2008-04-01

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