Housewarming nightmare - the story of Heathrow's terminal 5 introduction | PART 2 - good terminal, m.A.A.d systems

This is part 2 of a three part translation about the introduction of Heathrow terminal 5 - a pricy architectural masterpiece with a disastrous start. Please read part 1 before continuing, as part 2 is a logical continuation of it.

Imperfect storm

As expected, the first flight to ever arrive into the shiny new terminal was flight BA32 from Hong Kong. Happy passengers were given souvenirs, congratulated by Willy Walsh and were offered champagne. After such a warm welcome, they wizzed through immigration, quickly got their baggage and, upon exiting the baggage claim area, were happy to share their excitement with countless amounts of journalists. Everything seemed fine.

At 5:30AM, as the happy passengers were still talking with the media, flight BA28, also from Hong Kong, just landed at Heathrow and was also heading towards terminal 5. They too wizzed through the immigration, but when they came to the baggage claim area not a single bag was waiting for them. Meanwhile, another flight from Hong Kong already landed, and when it’s passengers came, there was still not a single bag on the baggage carousel, such was the case for all of the flights after it.

It was only at around 7 AM that, without any announcements, the first bags started to appear on one of the carousels. Soon after, several carousels were stopped: they were filled to the top with hundreds of bags. And what’s even worse is that bags from one flight could have been unevenly distributed across multiple carousels, which, inevitably, led to hundreds of angry passengers going from carousel to carousel in search of their bags, while the airport personnel, shocked as the passengers, just stood still and didn’t even know who they need to call.

Meanwhile, a sparse amount of loaders, which weren’t even enough for normal operation, were desperately trying to cope with the system that went insane. Every bag that was stuck was quickly swept onto the floor or put onto other carousels to at least somehow keep bags flowing. And, of course, no information about the movement of bags was coming into the system. At the same time, personnel of the company that made the system (Vanderlande) was confused as to why, even though the system was seemingly operating normally, no information about the bags was inputed into it, unaccounted bags were placed onto the conveyor and traveled to places where no one was waiting for them: workspaces of loaders were empty.

On the floors above, the situation was escalating even quicker than in the baggage claim area. As early as 6AM the queues at the check in desks were incredibly long: almost no personal was present, and the ones who were on duty couldn’t even log into the system. And while passengers were only coming and coming, the number of actually open counters was still miserable. Soon after, even the most tolerant people were going past the check in queue and straight to the rebooking offices, knowing that, with the current situation, there is no chance they would make it onto the plane.

The almost total absence of BA staff was devilishly resembling their “Where is everybody?” ad from 1994, only that instead of Rio or LA they were at the staff only doors, unable to get in. You see, in terminal 5 staff cards were used to get around, and while nowadays everything is fine with them, that day most of the cards refused to work, leaving employees either looking for the lucky ones whose cards worked or doing the same, but in the public area. But even when they have finally arrived at their desks, instead of the login and password authentication they were used to, most of people were greeted with authentication by cards, which, as everyone already knew at the time, didn’t work for most people. Immediately the phone lines of IT support were slammed by the amount of people trying to get new passwords.

And on the outside, the situation wasn’t much better: the gates at the staff only parking took a lot of time to check the cards, leading to queues of about 20 to 40 minutes on average. And when people finally parked, they needed to get into another long queue at the only working checkpoint, requiring another 20 minutes in the queue. That lead to, most notably, loaders not getting into the building on time, and when they finally got there, the goal was just to not let the situation get even worse.

Journalists, seeing that the real news are starting now, quickly moved back into the building. Our friend Willy Walsh was rushing around the terminal (with a champagne glass I guess?). At that moment, everything was like in one of Mikhail Zhvanetsky’s jokes, where it was advised to change “congratulations” to “curse you” in government letters. But jokes aside, the amount of people in the building was rapidly increasing, while the amount of bags that either didn’t make it onto the plane or haven’t reached the baggage claim area was crossing the 8 thousand mark.

At one point, the registration system just stopped tracking the bags, making it not only impossible to know which bags made it onto the plane, but rather where they are in the system. This, cooped with the strict safety regulations about unknown baggage, led to 68 flights being canceled at the last minute. But those last-minute cancelations made for a very confusing situation - thousands of people, who have legally left the UK, needed to be somehow guided to the lower arrival floors to pass through immigration and legally enter UK, and if you just so happened to be a foreigner with a used visa, then your legal quest would be even harder.

Soon after, both the airport’s website and British Airways website went down because of the amounts of people checking their flight status. Luckily, the people at BA quickly understood the people’s demands and temporarily made the whole website into a lightweight bulletin board, which helped the site stay afloat. The text there simply told their unlucky visitors about which flights are canceled, to not come to the airport if their flight departs from T5 and, finally to contact their call-center to rebook their flight or get a refund. Additional info for passengers included that they would, hopefully get their baggage, and if you were a transfer passenger, then you shouldn’t expect anything and, if possible, either not come to your departure airport or at least travel without their baggage.

Well, as you would expect, the call-center was the next to fall under the pressure. By the end of the day, the only thing they were doing is rebooking stranded passengers. But that was far from the end of Heathrow’s problems. Soon, in spite of loaders’ best efforts, the baggage system just stopped altogether. Queues with thousands of passengers stopped, while the new ones were coming and coming.

But then, the most terrifying news of all came from the control tower - airport’s departures to arrivals ratio was significantly disrupted, because it weren’t just the passengers who were feeling crowded. The taxiways were filling up with arrival aircraft, but there was nowhere for them to go, as the canceled flights were still sitting on the ground. The situation was worsening with every arrival: traffic jams were appearing all over the airfield, space for maneuvers was quickly shrinking and there weren’t enough tugs. In just a few hours, the airport went from a faulty baggage system in terminal 5 to being on the verge of a collapse.

At the same time, more than 100k passengers were waiting for their flight to London. They needed to be brought into this chaos without disrupting the whole London airspace and tens of departure airports. And back at Heathrow, the chaos already spilled over to the other terminals, where now passengers of other airlines and BA routes from Terminals 3 and 4 were also queueing at the check in desks. For British Airways, it meant that there is nowhere to retreat.

No airport in the world, all the more so Heathrow, could accept all of BA’s aircraft, but now they needed to find that or those airports in a matter of hours, if not minutes. Willy Walsh, probably by now having sedatives in his glass instead of champagne, instructs the only right thing to do: evacuate BA’s fleet from Heathrow. The control tower immediately halts all arrivals.

Immediately, tens of BA planes take off into the very crowded skies of London without baggage, sometimes passengers and even destinations. At the same time, planes that already took off bound to Heathrow were piling up above London. On that day, ATC needed to look after tens of planes circling above London waiting to land at Heathrow and at the same time not let them collide with traffic to other London’s airports. But for the BA’s evacuated planes, the situation wasn’t much better - their giant jumbos were only able to land at Gatwick and Stansted - both of which were already operating at full capacity.

At the same time, top BA staff came together to discuss what did go wrong. After a lot of analysis, they have came to the conclusion, that there were 2 main problems that started the domino effect.

The first reason was found to be the negligence of airline’s human resource management team and airport’s management: everyone swore that they hadn’t got any instructions on how do they get to their new workplace and where exactly is it. No-one cared to test how the old cards would work in the new terminal, which were the responsibility of BAA (Heathrow’s owner). Just so you understand the sheer amount of work that should have been done: before the opening of T5, 235 thousand cards needed to be re-registered in the system and make them work with more than 1200 new security doors.

The second reason was BA’s RMS (Resource Management System) - their human resource management system, which was responsible for the placement of personnel on their workplaces, was kinda half-dead. RMS were pocket computers handed out to their staff, which gave commands to the workers: do this, do that, throw a bag - you get the idea. Well, as it turned out before T5 most of the loaders didn’t use it, so when they were given a weird tamagotchi without any briefing, they were confused, so most of them didn’t even turn it on. Just in case. That led to the baggage claim area being flooded with thousands of bags, which eventually lead to the whole baggage system coming to a halt, because there first there was no-one to unload the bags, and then there were nowhere to unload the bags.

But outside of BA’s offices and back at Heathrow, staff were desperately begging people to go home. All the money for the tickets were promised to be refunded if they have just talked to the call center. As hotels started to fill up with stranded passengers, people were flown to their destinations on other airlines’ flights. The first water bottles and blankets were starting to be distributed to the people who had nowhere to go. Loader’s evenings were as fun as the ones of passengers. An estimate of 11 thousand bags were carefully dropped into one of the Heathrow’s backyards.

Vanderlande’s specialists, which, if you forgot, were the people who made the system, left their homes in Eindhoven and were flown out into London. Not on a BA flight, as you would imagine, and definitely not into Terminal 5. But the system checks showed nothing abnormal - everything seemed to function just like it had been for the previous 6 months of testing.

While the unluckiest passengers were sleeping on the floor of the new terminal and Vanderlande’s gurus were confused as to what was going on, BA’s HR department was working on getting new cards for the whole morning shift, unlocking all of the doors, put people in the parking lots, opened the second checkpoint, teached the loaders about the RMS system. Everything seemed like tomorrow everything would be alright, although they thought the same yesterday.

Day two, bad too

The next day, everything should have been fine: loaders, office workers, check in agents were on their workplaces on time, with their cars parked, checkpoint passed with no problems, in excess and with their RMS turned on. Everything seemed okay, but little did they knew that this was only calm before the storm…

Around 5 AM the flights from Hong Kong started coming in, and everything went very smoothly: most of the bags were unloaded and proceeded straight to the baggage claim. Some barcodes weren’t recognized by the system, so these suitcases were quickly routed towards manual inspection stations, where info from the label were inputed into the system and then the suitcase continued towards it’s owner, but that was nothing too serious. And then came the bags from other terminals…

When the suitcases from the other terminals started to come in, the manual inspection stations were suddenly bombarded: they were quickly being buried under suitcase after suitcase. Loaders, ignoring RMS, quickly left their workplaces to save their colleagues and help them clean up the quickly growing pile, but it was hopeless: it wasn’t just a wave, it was a real tsunami of baggage. At the same time, unknowing of what was happening, check in agents were sending bags to loading bays, where, once again, no-one was waiting for them, leaving them either on the floor or blocking the conveyors. This time, the system itself was the first to ring the alarm and straight up refused to accept any more bags from all of the entry points: check-in desks, arriving flights or other terminals - the system, once again, came to a halt. In just 10 minutes after that, the situation in the departures area became even worse than yesterday.

Willy Walsh, who already sent out tens of empty planes yesterday, had made the descision almost instantaneously: all of the transfer or arriving luggage should have been thrown into the already big pile at Heathrow backyard, and all of the luggage of departing passengers should not be accepted - they would either fly without their bags or not fly at all. Every one of the loaders who didn’t already help with the pile was now officially instructed to do so by the RMS.

At the same time, tens of trains, buses, taxis, limousines and relatives were heading towards the airport, still unknowing of the news. They were waiting to get discounted parfume at duty free, new Gordon Ramsey’s menus and newest clothes from Alexander McQueen. They were expecting what they were promised - a state of the art experience in the world’s best terminal.

What they arrived into instead was nothing they could have ever imagined. It was like a bazaar, but much worse. The announcement that you can only fly without luggage really outraged the crowd. Thousands of people from different countries, religions and races with their all kinds of luggage from Louis Vuitton trunks to shopping bags in stretch wrap - everyone was equally angered and confused. It didn’t matter whether you were a son of an arabic sheikh going home in first class from shopping in London or just a regular yorksher going to Turkey - that day everyone’s baggage wasn’t accepted.

Some people were getting hysterical, others threw all unnecessary items on the floor and got into a very long line with hopes of at least them getting onto the airplane. Some were demanding that they would be rebooked onto flights of other airlines and went home to then bombard the call center. And the most desperate ones were trying to carry their non carry-on sized suitcases onto the airplane.

All of this led to a terrible mess at the security checkpoints - the big, non-standard luggage was physically not fitting into the x-ray scanners, which led to some smarties packing their stuff into the stretch wrap taken from the luggage packers. The atmosphere of what should have been the world’s most luxurious airport at the time was quickly turning into a regional bus station at night: hundreds of people on the floor, thousands of bags, overcrowded halls and long queues to dirty toilets.

Restaurateurs are confused as to why Gordon Ramsey’s new olive oil specials didn’t go well with the travelers. Boutiques were almost empty and the only one who Paul Smith could sell novelties was Alexander McQueen, but even he didn’t know what he will do with his one. Duty frees were, for some weird reason, recording massive sales of very strong beverages.

It took a long time to get the people who haven’t left yesterday out of the departure area. By the end of the second day, almost all of them either went home or flew on another airline’s flight. Without their baggage of course, it was stranded in thousands of other bags.

The second day was as disastrous as the first one, with the exception of the pile growing by another thousands of bags. Check in agents weren’t accepting the baggage, and the bags of unlucky arrival passengers, whose bags didn’t get onto the conveyors before the collapse, were immediately sent to the pile, because what more could they do?

On day 3, the ban on baggage drop-off was put in effect for all flights departing out of T5, meanwhile the carry-on luggage dimensions and such were, effectively, dropped: people were bringing onboard whatever they wanted. BA started to, once again, cancel flights, not just for today, but for the next 3 days. A total of about 600 flights were canceled out of planned 4000 - about 15% of their schedule.

For the unlucky passengers who arrived into T5 with London as their final destination were, unwillingly, getting themselves into a game show with their baggage on the line. (pun not intended) Scanning of bags was disabled - now it was brought into the baggage claim area without any order or grouping and put onto the floor, with the unclaimed one going to the infamous pile. As it wasn’t even clear what flight the bags were from, the duty officers, armed with loudspeakers, called in the loaders and announced the information on the tags like they were guests at a ball party - sometimes the owner was found by the city, sometimes by name.

By the end of the third day, it was found what the similarities between the bags unidentified by the system were - they were all coming from the other terminals. It was discovered that the old IBM system, used in the other terminals, as intended, forwarded all of the data about the luggage to the T5 system. All, except for the most important - the system’s temporary internal identifier. That’s why the T5 loaders were going crazy - they were properly scanning the labels, but there was no information about it in the system. They were unable to get further instructions about it either from RMS or the luggage system and threw it into the pile to not clog up the conveyor.

Hope dies last

On the fifth day after the disastrous start, T5 became a real refugee camp. People were living on the mattresses and in tents. Toilets were crowded both in the process and because of it. Suddenly, the airport’s website went online after 5 days of downtime, only to advertise the wonderful spring sale as it did in it’s last seconds before going down. News crews were at the airport 24/7, collecting hstories about people from all over the world who were panicking, sleeping on the floor, throwing out their clothes just to get onto the plane.

With each day the stories were becoming even more heartbreaking: famous musicians and artists had their musical instruments and costumes lost in the pile, begging prime-minister Gordon Brown to do something about the mess and help them find their requisite to not cancel their tours. Kids were crying without their toys, whole families were flying on holidays - some without their trunks, some without their skiis. Groom’s friends were arriving to the weddings without smokings, and bride’s mother - without granny’s dress. One lady even had to cancel her husband’s funeral because of the urn with his ashes being lost somewhere in the pile.

British airways officially stopped their move into T5 until the incident is over, which meant that their spots in T3 and T4 were still occupied, delaying a chain of movings by 45 airlines. Dozens of innocent airlines had to reschedule their flights, re-sign their contracts with the ground crew and delay their contracts with the moving agencies. Even more nervous were the transport companies who just ordered new schemes, maps, cars and buses in the anticipation of the opening.

Dumps at the check in desks and security points, hundreds of canceled and delayed flights lighting up the departure and arrival boards with all of the available colors and, finally, a giant pile of bags - all of these things damaged the reputation of the airport, British Airways, London, Great Britain and, finally, the queen herself. It was only made worse by the astronomical cost of this new terminal - a whopping 8 billion pounds, which, adjusted for inflation, is still a lot of money (4.3b to be exact). The scandal was quickly becoming political.

Everyone was worried: the queen, the duke of Edinburgh, the workers, the press, the normal brits. The passengers of British Airways and their call center workers were also worried. The staff of psychiatric clinics near the spectacle were beyond nervous - they were having panic attacks. Basically everyone in Great Britain was worried, except maybe for John Galliano, he didn’t have a boutique in terminal 5.

And the saddest thing was that everything was alright on the BA side: their internal BA Logistics system was working perfectly in the other terminals. Even the RMS, which was, at the time, criticized by the loaders’s union worked fine in the other terminals. And all problems with parking, cards, checkpoints were resolved on the first day. All the keys and passwords in the whole baggage system were the same. Even the system itself was functioning excellently, perfectly understanding the situation and saving itself from any physical damage. There was only one missing piece of the puzzle - the result.

As a form of bad consolation, it was often reminded that the baggage system in Hong Kong’s Chep Lap Kok took almost 2 years to ‘revive’, but bad consolations turned out to be bad at comforting.

In the evening, representatives of BAA and IBM were called to a meeting. During the following day, they were instructed to ensure the transfer of the temporary bag identifiers from the old system to the new one, regardless of where or whom the luggage was from. And would you guess that the error that almost crippled Heathrow, damaged BA and embarrassed the queen was fixed in less than a day. The tests at night showed that the bags were moving between terminals as intended. Our good friend Willy orders to resume baggage drop-off without any previous restrictions for all the flights starting next morning. First caravan of arrivals from Hong Kong was again somewhere over the polar regions of Russia, while the wave from Singapore was, yet again, slowly passing over Azerbaijan.

Thanks for reading up to the end!
It is part 2 of a 3 part series of articles about the opening of Heathrow’s terminal 5. This is a translation of a bit from an article by Evgeniy Kaganovich on Apt group’s blog. You can find the link to the original article in russian bellow.

Part 1 Part 2 Part 3

Translated by: @Alexander_Nikitin
Original by: Evgeniy Kaganovich on
Photos from Heathrow photo library


I’ve flown in and out of Terminal 5, it’s amazing inside. Well worth it.

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