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Heathrow T5 baggage handling fiasco

Everything went absolutely perfectly ... a role model project, until opening day.  As a project it was the biggest of successes, and the greatest of failures. The building had finished on time and on budget, and with a surface area the size of Hyde Park, it is the largest building in the British Isles. Heathrow Terminal 5 on its own would be the fifth largest airport in Europe. 

The British Airports Authority chose contractors with whom they had worked in the past and with whom they had a long term relationship. The contractors cooperated to identify risks with rewards for cost reduction, team work and safety. When there were problems, the integrated teams set out to optimize solutions in a spirit of cooperation and not of adversity. For example, the roof supports, designed by Richard Rogers were 3 months late due to bad weather. The teams had to re-schedule their work and modify the overall project schedule. 

Components were pre-assembled and tested for the first time before delivery, and then a second time on site. For example, the baggage-carrying system was tested at the suppliers and installed 15 months ahead of schedule. So, what went wrong with the baggage-handling system on opening day? It was at the root of the fiasco.

Baggage-handlers had trouble in accessing the terminal as security screening malfunctioned. Some had difficulties in logging on to the new baggage system. The first flights left without baggage. Then, as staff struggled to clear the system, it overloaded and collapsed. Meanwhile, flights waiting for passengers blocked incoming flights. As frustration turned to anger, anti-aviation protesters cavorted around in conga lines. 

Later, passengers received a letter explaining that while "extensive testing and trials" had been carried out, there had been "significant problems". The airline blamed the airport, the airport blamed the airline, and the baggage-handlers complained that they had not been adequately consulted, or sufficiently trained, and that they had tried to warn about the weakness in the back-up systems. 

But, who would think of involving baggage-handlers? "They are only operators." In fact, they are also "experts"!  At last, a reason for ennobling people in their title? Ultimately, I think the T5 project and its T5 Contract will be remembered as a success. It certainly had an influence on the management of the London 2012 Olympic Games.


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