Alastair Dalton: BA communications failed with its computers

Some of the 75,000 passengers hit by the BA disruption slept in airport terminals. Picture: AFP/Getty Images
Some of the 75,000 passengers hit by the BA disruption slept in airport terminals. Picture: AFP/Getty Images
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Mystery may still surround exactly what wrong at British Airways on Saturday, but its shortcomings in keeping passengers informed are already all too clear.

The airline’s technological meltdown hit 75,000 travellers when it forced the cancellation of thousands of flights over the bank holiday weekend.

Willie Walsh, the former BA boss who now heads its parent company, said yesterday the chaos was caused by an electrical power failure which was still being investigated.

Mr Walsh said the focus would also be on “making sure that any of our customers who experienced disruption are managed and satisfied with how we handled things...clearly we will do everything we can to make up for the disruption they suffered.”

From what I’ve learned, that deserves an investigation in its own right.

You’d have thought BA had learned nothing from dealing with the horrendous opening day of Heathrow’s terminal five in 2008, when a baggage system breakdown brought things a standstill.

For last weekend’s crisis, I have been told that the poor communication with passengers surprised even airport chiefs, whose staff had to try and fill the void.

They compared BA’s response unfavourably to that of its major rivals, some of whom routinely keep in touch with travellers by email pretty much every step of the way.

The problem is managing expectations. Virtually every BA passenger caught up in the disruption will have had a mobile phone, with which they could easily search for information or attempt to glean it direct from the airline.

This plainly failed, as evident by the exasperation of many that was vented on social media and to journalists.

First, a huge company like BA, whose past slogan was To Fly, To Serve, should have far better harnessed such technology so that it could keep in touch with passengers.

At the very least, it should have devised a means - electronic or otherwise - of reassuring them they were not being ignored.

That means regularly issuing updates, even if there was little new information to impart.

Second, BA should not have offered what it could not deliver. Its official Twitter account, followed by more than 1 million people, states: “We love reading your tweets and are here 24 hours a day, 7 days a week to help.”

Enthusiastic as that sounds, there are clearly not enough staff reading them, or not quickly enough.

Yesterday morning, tweets from stranded passengers that had been sent on Sunday - four days previously - were still being answered.

The rate of response also looked very low at times, slowing to just ten tweets answered in an hour early yesterday compared to many more before and after that.

Among the hundreds - possibly thousands - of tweets was a series from a man who signed up to Twitter in an attempt to contact BA.

Receiving no reply to two tweets on Sunday night, he then tried to phone the airline. After two hours trying to get through, he was left with the impression that it could not help him.

He sent another two tweets on Monday morning - and finally got a response yesterday.

Air travel is increasing and technology is becoming ever more sophisticated. There will be more major disruption. A more effective way of communicating it must be a priority.