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A Terminal Public Relations Nightmare

It is the worst nightmare of anyone involved in event planning: The event turns into a disaster. Such was the case last week in London, where British Airways (“BA”) and BAA, which operates Heathrow Airport, opened Terminal 5.

The hype surrounding T5, as it is known, started in September 2002 when ground was broken on the $8.6 billion structure. Designed by award-winning architects Rogers Stirk Harbour and Partners, T5 is the largest free-standing building in the United Kingdom. It took over 60,000 people working over 100 million person-hours to transform a former sludge works, divert two rivers and tunnel eight miles. T5 was built on time and on budget to handle 30 million passengers annually and process 12,000 pieces of luggage per hour. Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II officially opened T5 on March 14th, and the facility opened for business March 27th.

The visit by Queen Elizabeth II was the last bit of good news for BA and BAA. Since Terminal 5 opened, BA and BAA have dealt with the following problems, most of which have been related to baggage handling operations:

— Over 430 cancelled flights.

— Between 20,000 and 30,000 pieces of luggage were separated from their owners, including 15,000 pieces that were being sent to Milan, Italy to be sorted and returned to passengers from mainland Europe.

— Detailed blueprints of the terminal’s fire alarm system were found about 20 miles away and given to a newspaper reporter, who said that security analysts believed the information could have been of benefit to someone planning a terrorist action.

— Financial analysts estimated on Monday that the problems could cause a loss of $50 million in revenues for BA. The company could face additional losses related to customer compensation and fines from European Union regulatory agencies.

— Rival airlines and private jet services reported increases in bookings, saying they were helping stranded BA passengers.

— A “flash mob” descended on the terminal on opening day to protest continued expansion at Heathrow.

— Newspaper, radio and television editorials have slammed BA, BAA and the executives in charge of the entities.

— Media outlets have run countless stories of passengers whose plans were dashed, such as a young couple whose wedding was ruined when their flight was cancelled and their baggage was lost.

— BA destroyed thousands of copies of a full-color internal newsletter commemorating the opening of T5 that was to be distributed to the company’s 40,000-plus employees.

— A plan for the Olympic torch to arrive at T5 next week was scrapped.

BA went on an all-out PR blitz prior to T5’s opening. Company executives hailed the facilities opening, claiming that its high-tech baggage handling and advanced check-in systems would speed customer arrivals and departures. Human error, however, seems to be the cause of many of T5’s problems.

Check-in agents were not on duty when the terminal opened at 4:00 AM on its first day of operation and baggage handlers had trouble getting to the site that day. Poor communication from BA and BAA caused stressed out travelers to complain more vigorously, causing additional delays as personnel shifted from operational activities to customer service.

The opening of T5 is one of the worst operational disasters in recent business history, perhaps only rivaled by a baggage system issue that caused a sixteen-month delay in the opening of Denver International Airport in 1996. (In that case, the new airport sat empty as engineers unsuccessfully tried to fix the problem.)

Moreover, while Bear Stearns imploded recently, the company’s operations were barely affected. BA, meanwhile, has seen problems cascade across its operations due to the flight cancellations.

BA and BAA have been publicly blaming one another for the problems at T5, though most of the media and public’s ire is aimed at BA, the terminal’s only occupant. Government officials who were supportive of the project have also been targets of criticism.

BA’s handling of the T5 crisis has been poor, at best.

Company executives cheerfully suggested on Day 1 that problems would be resolved quickly. Operational executives on the ground at T5 then appeared in front of the media to make boilerplate comments. In the meantime, BA’s public relations organ was operating a few miles away in its offices, unaware of what was really going on at T5 and relying on second-hand information.

Taking much of the blame for the T5 disaster has been BA Chief Executive Officer Willie Walsh. After initially trying to suggest that T5’s problems were nothing huge, Walsh has relented, saying recently that he takes the blame for the disaster and acknowledging that the company screwed up.

Julie Simpson, BA’s head of corporate communications, has also been castigated. Simpson joined the company less than a year ago after serving as an advisor to former Prime Minister Tony Blair. She has been criticized for essentially doing what a PR person does when something goes horribly wrong – resorting to boilerplate press releases and taking no questions.

While there were suggestions in the media that the T5 opening possibly would not go smoothly, no one could have predicted that the event would turn into an unmitigated disaster … no one except the PR people of BA and BAA.

The PR people at BA and BAA should have been dreaming up nightmare scenarios of how to handle a crisis. They should have been on the scene on opening day (I would have set aside office space in the terminal for them) and in constant communication with executives and operational managers. The PR people should have cleared T5 of media, arguing that they were interfering with operations and making the situation worse.

T5 is an operational disaster and one that could have been avoided. The PR problem that accompanied the mess could not have been avoided, but it could have been handled much better. It’s obvious that the PR staffs of BA and BAA were simply not prepared. They were too busy hyping and not worrying about contingency plans. Their peers at rival airlines, meanwhile, have taken full advantage of the situation.

Sadly, BA, BAA and the affected passengers may not be the only people licking their wounds.

“The shambles we have seen at Heathrow’s new Terminal 5 comes as little surprise. It is yet another depressing chapter for the UK’s crumbling transport system and sends a depressing message to businesses around the world. This is a PR disaster at a time when London and the UK are positioning themselves as global players. We can only hope that this will provide a wake up call as we gear ourselves up to host the Olympics in 2012.”

That statement came from, of all organizations, The British Chambers of Commerce.

This article, written by Ben Silverman, originally appeared in PR Fuel (http://www.ereleases.com/prfuel), a free weekly newsletter from eReleases (http://www.ereleases.com), the online leader in affordable press release distribution. To subscribe to PR Fuel, visit: http://www.ereleases.com/prfuel/subscribe/.

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