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The Opening of T5 at Heathrow Airport


The anticipated hilarious opening of Heathrow Airport’s new £4.3 billion terminal on 27 March 2008 turned out to be a flop when a series of technical hitches necessitated the cancellation of several flights (Robinson 2009).  This was characterized by luggage delays and long queues at the airport, which is managed by the British Airports Authority (BAA) (Robinson 2009).  BAA offers services to British Airways (BA) as a sole tenant (Robinson 2009). The hitch occurred against a backdrop of what the management of Heathrow airport thought would be a fresh start as it was hoped that the creation of a new terminal at the airport, dubbed Terminal 5 (T5) would improve the delivery of services to travellers (Millward 2008). In addition, the terminal was built after several years of planning; hence, no hitch was be anticipated (Millward 2008).

T5 terminal incorporates a multiplicity of luxury restaurants and shops and was described as a terminal that would irreversibly change the customers’ experience of air travel (Robinson 2009).  Nevertheless, in spite of the preparations, BA was forced to cancel 34 domestic and short-haul flights and recorded massive delays in movement of bags as well as hitches in car parking and security check problems (Robinson 2009). Eventually the airline company had to take responsibility of the hitch by admitting that their staff had encountered familiarization problems at the new terminal and that there were problems in processing customers’ baggage (Robinson 2009). BAA also apologized for the hitch (Robinson 2009).

The crisis and how BA and BAA handled it

It is evident that there was not one but a series of events that led to the T5 crisis. To begin with, there was a major problem in logistics and planning as baggage handlers reported that instead of proper training in readiness for the opening of T5, they were just shown around (Robinson 2009). The situation got worse on the opening day as the baggage handlers and other staff were not allowed access to the BAA car park (Robinson 2009).  In addition, the lack of staff and spaces caused the handlers to arrive to work two hours late (Robinson 2009).  Moreover, when the staff arrived at the building, they found it difficult to navigate due to signage problems (Robinson 2009).

The second problem was associated with technical and human errors (Woodman 2008). The first technical problem occurred when the computer system at T5 failed to recognize staff IDs (Woodman 2008). Other human and technical problems were also noted in that while some doors were expected to have been opened, they remained locked, eighteen of the terminal lifts were jammed and the passenger transit system connecting the main terminal to the satellite terminal had broken down (Woodman 2008). In addition, all escalators, carousels, electronic screens and walkways at the terminal failed, and the contemporary baggage handling system crashed at a time when it was needed most (Woodman 2008). Both BA and BAA staff were therefore unable to handle luggage (Woodman 2008). Consequently, only luggage from the first incoming flight from Hong Kong was cleared because managers were deployed to clear the baggage off the plane (Woodman 2008).

The third problem had to do with poor leadership coupled with pride. This was evidenced by the astonishing complacency in BA and BAA because in spite of the hitch, they were not quick to find viable short-term solutions to avoid flight interruptions (Woodman 2008). Further, in the previous week, a representative of BAA had declared that BAA had “a world-class baggage system (at T5) that would work perfectly on the first day” (Corkindale 2008). This comment was made in spite of the fact that baggage staff had constantly reported hitches, which were ignored by the senior management (Woodman 2008).

The T5 crisis also revealed the low level of morale among BA and BAA staff, who in the previous months had not even turned up for training (Corkindale 2008).  In addition, on day one of the T5 crisis, there was a shortage of staff and very few of those who were present were willing to volunteer doing extra work (Corkindale 2008). Hence, it is clear that there was dissonance between the top managers and junior staff of BA and BAA. This could have compounded the failure to avert the T5 crisis (Corkindale 2008).

The other aspect of the T5 crisis was poor communication. According to some passengers, both BA and BAA personnel failed to communicate to them in spite of their being aware there was a major problem (Corkindale 2008). There was uncertainty on whether passengers’ hold baggage was being accepted, causing some flights to leave with baggage and others without (Corkindale 2008). Most passengers complained that there was no one to help them and on the first day at 5.30 am, there were over 200 passengers on a queues inquiring about cancellation of flights and only two out of the 26 desks at the terminal were operational (Corkindale 2008).

As a consequence of the poor service at the airport, there was much confusion on which flights were to take off and which had actually been cancelled. Unfortunately, when executives of BA and BAA arrived, they misjudged the mood at the airport by considering the situation a “teething problem” connected to“bedding-down period” (Corkindale 2008). One strategy taken by BA and BAA to avert the effects of the crisis was advising travellers to check in at the airport with hand baggage only if they wished to travel later (Corkindale 2008).  Further, BA advised passengers to telephone its personnel if they wanted refund or were in need of rebooking their flights. BA also assisted passengers whose flights were cancelled by giving them £100 to cater for overnight expenses. Nevertheless, local hotels were charging up to twice this amount. In further response to the crisis, the CEO of BA admitted that the opening day of T5 was not BA’s “finest hour” and promised to do better (Corkindale 2008).

From the above description it is evident that although BA and BAA attempted to help passengers at the Heathrow airport, the move was taken too late. The advice to passengers on baggage would have been time bound had the management anticipated problems by rehearsing the opening day (BBC News). In addition, it seems that although BA gave its passengers £100 for overnight expenses, local hotels might have taken advantage of the situation to raise the cost of their services (BBC News). Therefore, BA would have organized for the services on its own as way of showing more concern for its passengers.

On the flip side, both BA and BAA displayed a lot of complacency and irresponsibility by not handling the T5 crisis issue with the seriousness that was deserved. For instance, it took too long for the management to realize that the problem at the airport was escalating beyond control, and they were not even courteous enough to advise passengers on their next move. Overall, the crisis could have been averted or its effect mitigated had the management assessed situation and done rehearsals prior to the opening day of T5.

How BA and BAA could have handled the crisis

BA and BAA failed to mitigate the effects of the T5 crisis or even possibly avert the failure noted on T5’s opening because of complacency and irresponsiveness of the executive. It is clear from the description above that the executive and the junior employees of the two organizations had discordant views prior to the T5 opening day. This is illustrated by the point that although baggage handlers had initially indicated that there were hitches in their provision of service, the top managers avoided the topic and went on with their plans. Moreover, no sufficient training was offered, leaving everyone unprepared on the day T5 was opened. With points in mind, it is obvious that there was a lapse in management proficiency at the two organizations.

According to Tench and Yeomans (2006), there is no proper recipe for successful crisis management, but there are key components that could help an organization to secure the best option out of a crisis. These components are knowledge, preparation, calmness, control and proper communication (Tench & Yeomans 2006).  If these ingredients are put into proper use, they ensure that an organization is always prepared for the unexpected and that it can quickly come out of a crisis with no major adverse consequences (Tench & Yeomans 2006). But BA and BAA seem to have been devoid of the aforementioned ingredients, for one, they were not anticipating any hitch in the opening of T5, implying that they were not prepared for any crisis and did not have any knowledge of a negative outcome of the pricey investment. In addition, it is evident that the managers of BA and BAA lacked calmness and control given that they could not handle the T5 crisis at its initial stages. Moreover, there was poor communication between the executives of both organizations and their junior staffs as well as between the personnel of the two organizations and passengers. Yet communication is a key ingredient that would have averted prolonged frustration to which the passengers were subjected.

BA and BAA would have avoided the T5 crisis by effective training of their personnel in readiness for the opening day. Along this line, even if any unprecedented event such as failure of the computer system would have occurred, the effect would not have been as resounding as it was felt. Another point that the management of the two organizations overlooked is integration of ideas from the junior staff and the executives. According to Doughty (2000), effective management of an organization requires integration of a diversity of ideas from different departments of the organization since every department has an integral role to play. This would entail the four absolutes of quality management  model noted by George (2008) that involve planning, doing, checking and acting accordingly in case of any hitches in a given system. It is evident that the two organizations failed to implement this model, hence the resonant failure that was noted.

BA and BAA managers should have listened to the sentiments by baggage handlers that their service was not running as smoothly as was expected. In addition, prior to the opening day of T5, all departments would have integrated their ideas to ensure that each facility such the signage and computer systems were in working condition.  This would have been achieved by having small teams capable of making decisions and representing all stakeholders as highlighted by Doughty (2000). The small teams would have assessed the situation and indicated any possible anomalies or any faulty processes such as those that were revealed on the fateful day of opening T5. In addition, the managers would have shown more concern and courtesy to passengers by addressing at the passengers immediately instead disappearing and only appearing later to give apologies.

Lessons from the crisis

According to McCusker (2005), crises within organizations can actually present the organizations with the opportunity to move closer to stakeholder groups. This implies that with crises such as the T5 hitch, organizations can actually make use of their public relations teams to reach their clients and thereby strengthen their relationships. Another clear message from the point by McCusker (2005) is that crises expose those areas of weakness in a firm, which may not be realized under normal environments. As realized in the T5 crisis, the weaknesses of BA and BAA were exposed as the two organizations failed to deliver what would have been excellent services to their customers. Nevertheless, the crises still provided a learning environment that would lead to improvement of services if the anomalies were rectified.

 Some crises actually provide an opportunity for organizations to sell their images by their approaches in dealing with the crisis remains etched in the minds of clients. According to Jetkins (1984), the public relations group of an organization is actually seen as an extension of marketing communication because it is the department that has direct formal contact with  clients and is influential in ensuring that an organization’s marketing objectives are attained. In the case of BA and BAA, the two organizations and particularly BA had the opportunity to reach their passengers and convince them that their services were still the best in the world in spite of the T5 hitch. The organizations attempted to do this by advising passengers about movement with baggage and offering some financial assistance to those whose flights were cancelled. Nevertheless, the poor communication at the start of the crisis could have immensely affected BA’s relations with the passengers.

How BA restored its credibility and reputation

After the T5 mishap, British Airways had no alternative but to apologize to the affected passengers albeit belatedly (Millward 2008).   The BA Chief Executive Officer, Willie Walsh, faced the music by noting as earlier mentioned, that the T5 hitch was not the airline’s “finest hour” and added that the buck stopped with him (Millward 2008).   The CEO’s message was rather more reassuring than that of BA’s director of operations who had earlier appeared at the terminal with an unconvincing message. The CEO’s message was indicative of the fact that he was cognizant of BA’s public relations disaster. Indeed there was need to improve the dented image of the airline because it was felt that the airline’s Public Relations Chief Julia Simpson had failed by responding to journalists with honed statements that seemed to overlook the real situation on the  floor of the terminal (T5) (Millward 2008).  This was a poor marketing strategy because the media plays a significant role in promoting service corporations such as BA. BA had also initially claimed that the T5 problem was only a small mishap caused by a dysfunction in the public address system managed by BAA (Millward 2008). Thus, there was need to admit that indeed there was a big problem not just limited to BAA.

In order to improve its image further, BA managers held consultation with the BAA management in order to avert further mishaps at T5 (“Jaunted”). BA is also in the process of marketing itself across world destinations in order to restore passenger confidence in it as the airline of choice (“Jaunted”). Nearly twelve months down the line, BA has been aggressive in marketing- some of its plans being a “merger” with Virgin Atlantic in order to improve efficiency (“Jaunted”). However, the deal whose prospects started later in 2008 is not a merger as Virgin Atlantic still has an insignificant share of the market. Nevertheless, such a move is one among some of the issues that have shielded BA from criticism over the effects of the T5 crisis (“Jaunted”).


The opening of T5 at Heathrow airport was expected to be a milestone in BA’s prospects to be a leading airline, but became a downturn due to a multiplicity of hitches in the management by both BA and BAA. Some on the notable causes of the hitch were poor planning and dissonance of ideas among executives and junior staff. The T5 crisis was however a turning point as it exposed the weaknesses in the operations of BA and BAA, which if rectified could augment BA’s and BAA’s efforts to provide unrivalled air travel services. As a result of the T5 crisis, BA has embarked on an intensive recovery plan that involves better public relations, among them a merger plan with Virgin Atlantic in order to restore its credibility. An important lesson learnt is the role of communication to the public and stakeholders as key to crisis management.


BBC News. 28 March 2008, Baggage halted at new £4.3bn T5, available from http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/7317352.stm

Continuity Central, Crisis management lessons from Terminal 5, available from http://www.continuitycentral.com/feature0566.htm (26 February 2008)

Corkindale, G 2008, How Can British Airways Recover from the Terminal 5 Disaster? Harvard Business, available from http://blogs.harvardbusiness.org/corkindale/2008/04/how_can_british_airways_recove.html (26 February 2008)

Doughty, K 2000, Business continuity planning: Protecting your organization’s life, CRC Press, London

George, VF 2008, Introduction to project management, available from http://sct.emu.edu.tr/alev/csit234/Fuller1e_ch08.pdf (26 February 2008)

Jaunted, 18 August, 2008, Virgin Atlantic, BA Squabbling over Heathrow Slots, available from http://www.jaunted.com/tag/British%20Airways/2 (26 February 2008)

Jefkins, F W 1984, Public Relations for Management Success, Routledge, London

McCusker, G 2005, Talespin: Public relations disasters-inside stories & lessons learnt, Kogan Page Publishers, London

Millward, D 2008 Heathrow Terminal 5: public relations disaster, Telegraph, available from http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/1583103/Heathrow-Terminal-5-public-relations-disaster.html (26 February 2008)

Robinson, P 2009, Operations management in the travel industry, CABI, London

Tench R, & Yeomans, L 2006, Exploring public relations, FT Prentice Hall, London

Woodman, P 2008, Disastrous opening day for Terminal 5, The Independent UK, available from http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/baggage-hitch-mars-opening-of-new-terminal-801376.html


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