The good, the bad, the T5 - the story of Heathrow's terminal 5 introduction | PART 3 - black swans, red suitcases

This is the last part of a three part translation about the introduction of Heathrow terminal 5 - a pricy architectural masterpiece with a disastrous start. Please read part 1 and part 2 before continuing , as part 3 is a logical continuation of them.

Too good to be true

It was the early morning of August 3, the sixth day of Merlaison ballet at the now world famous terminal 5. Loaders, check in agents, IBM workers, dutch from Vanderlande, Willy Walsh, Nigel Rudd and Collin Matthews - basically everyone who was either bored or sleepless that night - came to meet today’s caravan from Hong Kong.

Eventually, the first planes landed, taxied to the gate and starting unloading. Loaders were waiting to combat the, what seemed to inevitable chaos. But instead, nothing happened. After the Hong Kong wave finished unloading, the amount of unidentified bags was within the average in other terminals - about 26 per 1000 pieces of luggage. Soon after, the first “alien” bags from the old terminals started coming, and still, everything was normal. Overnight, the system went from a crippled monster to, well, being just the biggest baggage system in the world, now working as intended.

On the check-in floor above, everything was just as good as bellow - rivers of bags were smoothly flowing down to the freshly-built belts and people were smoothly throwing out their mattresses, packing their tents and heading to the check in bags. Bahamas were about to be hit with a tsunami of baggage, China was about to be hit with thousands of bags returning home - all on-time. Gordon Ramsey was serving olive oil as usual, in Paul Smiths workers were treating the first person to enter the dressing room like the first lady, and the massagers in Galleries were finally able to exit out of their meditative immobility. People were trying to cry from happiness, but they cried all out days before.

Little did they know, Nassim Talib, who released his black swan (a book about the black swan theory) a year before, was the voice of impending doom. The black bird was inbound for landing, and it won’t be the american wunderwaffe - instead, it would do the usual bird thing - destroy other’s happiness, and so it did.

Too good to be true indeed

Some time later, when the first flights haven’t even departed, they system sounded an alarm and stopped doing anything at all. Journalists, were happy that something happened before they boarded Heathrow express, Heathrow’s website crashed again and the BA’s website was back to the bulletin board. Because the stars of the show were already at the site of the expected show and were in, well, a celebrating mood, they were quickly at the site of the gone-wrong show.

The behavior of the baggage system didn’t spoil any symptoms - it was just a stop and bye. But this time it couldn’t have been the baggage system itself, something was in the air, something very close and familiar. BA Logistics was reporting that all departures should be canceled and all of the luggage should be unloaded because, from its point of view, the amount of bags that were loaded in violation of safety protocols was exceeding the critical mass by a milestone. And, of course, the bag drop off was once again disabled. The planes were again flying empty and everything was getting back to the usual mess.

But what did wrong this time? One word: reconciliation. You see, in aviation, terrorism is quite the problem, so during the boarding process the crew verifies that every bag onboard has an owner and he is also on the plane. And if it just so happens that there is some bag that doesn’t, the container is unloaded and the bag is taken out of it. Well it turns out that Ba Logistics found thousands of such bags, crashed the RMS, bombed the manual inspection area just as it did in the days before, and before anyone could react, the baggage system disabled itself to be still in one piece afterwards.

So everything was back to normal: the baggage system is completely stopped, our beloved pile in the backyard was about to grow, BA Logistics was lagging, RMS froze and Willy Walsh’s hair was quickly turning white. The mockery of passengers and their luggage was taking quickly crossing all moral and Ryanair levels. Another meeting was devoted to looking into the changes to the systems which interacted with the baggage system which, while being halted, was working as intended. It was necessary to understand how and where did the Waldos and other passengers disappeared from the system, because they should have been there at some point at least, and now they’re gone.

Whereas previously everything was blamed on good ol’ IBM, dutch from Valderlande, bastards from BAA and their clumsy security services, now all blame was on their in-house BA Logistics. In an evening interview, britain’s favorite irishman by now Willy Walsh said the historic in T5’s story words: “The buck stops here” - meaning that all the questions should now be directed towards him.

Even on second week, the paths of suitcases were still a mystery. International bacchanalia in an outstanding location with complicated systems and thousands of participants had already lasted for 11 whole days. Records of dancing marathons, wintering in Antarctica, conquering Everest and flights in space were all on the line. Mankind was on the verge of solving one of the biggest philosophical questions about what’s worse: horrible ending or endless terror, when someone noticed a little strangeness.

To turn off the reconciliation function in BA Logistics, the info about passenger and luggage should have been separated, if he is flying into T5. It turned out that was the thing they did when they banned baggage drop-off, after which the servers were reloaded and the system went into restricted mode. And, for some unknown reason, on the night everything was “fixed”, the correct settings for normal operations were indeed put into the system, but it wasn’t restarted. Not hoping for anything, the settings were immediately checked, server restarted and… It worked perfectly. The server room was locked with a new key, the key was buried, the shovel was shredded and they didn’t have to touch it ever since.

What a housewarming party! What an end! Or is it?

Oi mate there’s a big ol’ pile of suitcases in our backyard

With the baggage system was finally fixed and operating at full capacity, all flights departing on time and the schedules back to normal, there was still one issue that was standing as a monument to everything that was - the massive pile of luggage in the backyard. The heap was beautiful, watered by the London rain, blown by it’s wind, sometimes changing a bit in size and quickly becoming a landmark.

The pile should have definitely be gone, but as chinese philosophers teach us, the journey of 10000 steps starts with the first step. Problem was, instead of 10000 step journey there was 23205 bags, and behind every one of them was someone’s interesting fate, tens of phone calls, tears of call center operators, disrupted presentation, canceled concert and even, as we learned earlier, canceled funeral.

If you have let archeologists explore all of them, you would have gotten a phenomenal portrait of our civilization, but instead, they called in the loaders, and they cited the british law, which said that every piece of luggage that didn’t make it onto the plane should be re-examined for safety reasons. After going over that boring legal stuff, the loaders got to work dividing the bags for Europe and the bags for the rest of the world.

The ones for Europe were driven on trucks to Milan, where it didn’t have to be rescanned, as it would continue it’s journey on land, and so for the bags in Milan, a logistics company was hired to send each and every bag to it’s owners to their desired addresses. Meanwhile, Gatwick came to help Heathrow and provided specialists, as well as area for scanning, storing and sealing the lost bags. Convoys of trucks carrying about 18500 bags in total arrived at Gatwick, waited for them to scan everything and then went back to Heathrow.

At Heathrow, those bags were divided yet again, now splitted into bags for USA and the bags for the rest of the world. For this pile, FedEx flew all of them to their Memphis hub, where it would get the same treatment as the European ones. The rest was flown all around the world by FedEx and their competitors. In total, the baggage repatriation process took 5 weeks to do and leaving only around 400 bags unidentified.

The aftermath

Since then, the world’s biggest baggage system functions perfectly and seamlessly survived the planned move of all planned flights into T5 in June 2008, a month behind schedule. The parliamental hearing not only didn’t destroy the reputation of the defendants, but instead even strengthened it. The final decision was that the circumstances that have lead to the collapse of the baggage system could have not been simulated during half a year of testing, as that would have required stopping the baggage system of the other terminals.

It was also decided that the move could have not been postponed, as a higher degree of readiness simply could have not been achieved with the available resources. That none of the problems in-itself were significant enough to cause what had happened, but the unique set of circumstances and the unprecedented scale of the project created an unpredictable cumulative effect. And while in Hong Kong it took 2 years to fix a similar problem in the conditions of an empty terminal, in Heathrow in the conditions of a working terminal it was fixed in less than 2 weeks.

The question of disrespect towards the queen was also one of the critical issues: why was her majesty called into the terminal when it wasn’t working properly. Is it appropriate to put the queen in such an awkward position? The answer was more than reasonable: there are no weekends at Heathrow and the terminals are always full. It would have been unthinkable to invite her majesty into the terminal during opening hours and stop all passenger traffic would have been unthinkable, so would be inviting her into the crowded terminal, and it would be just plain rude to invite the highest lady into a unfamiliar building in the middle of the night.

Willy, Walsh and the conclusion

Afterwards, Willy Walsh did not only retain his CEO position at British Airways, but had also managed to organize a series of acquisitions and mergers in the coming years, ultimately leading to the creation of International Airlines Group. And after introducing IAG into a closer alliance with American Airlines, making him the king of transatlantic.

Willy Walsh (without a hat) and the BA crew near their 787

He started his career with Aer Lingus as the second pilot on an A320. Becoming first the CEO of Aer Lingus, then British Airways and eventually IAG, he continued collecting certifications for other aircraft types. In 2010 after the eruption of that Islandic volcano which is like Voldemort but you actually can’t say it’s name and it is also called Eyjafjallajökull and it halted all air travel in Europe, Willy himself took one of BA’s 747 and flew around and over it to prove that it had finally became save to fly again.

Terminal 5 took the crown as the best airport terminal for 6 years in a row from quacks you usually know as SkyTrax, leaving Hong Kong, Singapore and Amsterdam miles behind in surveys.

Thanks for reading up to the end!
It is the last part 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 the original article.


Very good read! I really enjoyed this! Thanks for sharing it with us! :)

Amazing work once againđź‘Źđź‘Źđź‘Ź

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