Terminal 5 at London’s Heathrow Airport opened in 2008, the culmination of five and a half years of construction. It had been preceded by the longest public inquiry in British history. The operators, BAA, had plenty of time to look at how to ensure that the opening was a success. Yet many people remember the opening of that terminal as a disaster.
There is a long history of airport terminals having rather large problems upon opening, and the Heathrow teams did indeed look around the world at how to avoid common pitfalls. Thousands of people were involved in testing of the new terminal, including the check in of fake passengers. The extensive list of tests was complete. What could possibly go wrong?
However on launch day of T5, it became apparent that all was not well, with staff unfamiliar with their surroundings using new workflows, and the addition of bugs (ironically left in from the testing phase) in the baggage handling system. Once the baggage system had been filled to capacity and no more bags were being removed by baggage handlers, the system ground to a halt. Thousands of bags became stranded, and in many cases had to be shipped to other locations for further handling and dispatching to follow their passengers. The House of Commons transport committee was so distressed by the poor performance that they ordered a report, which was delivered in November 2008. You can download it from:
The most interesting part of this report are the transcripts of the oral evidence from BAA and British Airways staff. My favourite paragraph:
BAA also told us that “despite the vigorous tests that took place, it was inevitable that once real passenger bags were introduced into the system, there would be bedding-in issues”. We were interested in the distinction between a real passenger bag and a test bag, and followed it up in oral evidence. Colin Matthews said “It may have been that the baggage we were testing was too uniform […] Maybe the reality of the baggage that people put into the system was more diverse than our tests represented.”
The complexity of a building such as Terminal 5, inevitably means that day one of a live environment will reveal holes in test processes, and many were not representative of true operations. Looking through the report, the teams may have been able to muddle through, had a combination of other issues not occurred. The main lesson from British Airways’ perspective was training and familiarisation. The building phase overran, and so the operational readiness phase became rushed. Training for staff did take place, but on what was essentially a building site. The first day on the job in T5 was in an environment that looked very different.
Things were resolved quickly – the baggage system went back to capacity, staff knew where they were supposed to report for work, staff security times were improved, and basic infrastructure such as lifts were brought into service. But the loss of goodwill was enormous.
Six years later, and BAA are about to deliver their latest project, Heathrow Terminal 2. I’m excited to be involved in the testing programme as a test passenger. I’d love to learn more about the testing and acceptance of the new building, and in particular whether the human factors from Terminal 5 have been learnt.