Crisis management lessons from Terminal 5

Get free weekly news by e-mailLast week saw the opening of Heathrow airport’s latest terminal and what should have been a flag-waving event turned into a public relations and customer service disaster. Charlie Maclean-Bristol draws some lessons from the chaos.

Watching news reports about the Heathrow Terminal 5 chaos I felt it was a text book example of how NOT to manage a crisis. The following are my thoughts on what can be learned from this event:

1. Don't let it happen in the first place

Terminal 5 is a new and very complex building. It was built with the aim of enhancing customer experience and to showcase Heathrow as a world class airport. Because of this a smooth opening was essential; but unfortunately not only did this not happen; the ensuing chaos was broadcast around the world as headline news. According to the news reports the problems were caused by a combination of failures, but I suspect that something also went wrong in terms of risk management. Did they carry out rehearsals? If so, why were the opening day glitches not identified? Did they train and hire extra staff in anticipation of potential teething problems? Did they develop contingency plans for every eventuality so that there was no chance of failure? Given the evidence, I think not. Good risk management might have come to the conclusion, if there was the possibility of failure, that it might be better to open the Terminal on a phased basis, making sure it worked before going fully operational. This might have lost some publicity but would have been better than what happened.

2. Take responsibility for your actions
The spokesman that I saw on BBC television was wheeled out, read from a prepared script and then rapidly escaped behind a locked door perused by reporters yelling questions. Airport staff have a reputation for not being able to give answers to difficult questions and so this lived up to the stereotype. This was obviously a disaster of their own making, so why didn't the spokesman stand up and answer questions and be sympathetic to the plight of the customers? It made the company look shabby and elusive. As the crisis developed why did they not get a heavyweight spokesman to answer media questions. It would have showed that British Airways took the issue seriously.

3. Take radical steps to show you are in control
Instead of soldiering on and eventually getting it right, BAA and British Airways could perhaps have taken more radical steps which would have shown they were in charge of the situation. These could have included closing the terminal and reopening it later in the week. This may or may not have been possible but in a crisis it is sometimes better to admit failure and take radical steps, rather than soldier on and hope eventually you get it right. I worked with a company who had an accident and one of their employees was killed. Instead of continuing operations and improving their systems gradually to try and prevent this happening again, they took radical steps. They cancelled for one week all their work and had no employees deployed 'out in the field'. They then restarted operations over the next four weeks while they reviewed their health and safety systems and retrained staff. Although this caused a lot of disruption to their customers, it showed that they took the accident very seriously and were determined to do something about it even if it was in the short term detrimental to their customers.

4. Buy goodwill

It was reported that passengers were having to book their own hotels and were only given £100 towards the cost while hotels were costing £200. Give the customers free food, organise their hotel rooms, throw money at the problem and give them more than they are entitled to or expect to get. This may cost the company some money but it buys goodwill and when the reporters come looking for disgruntled customers it is much more difficult to find one. The money spent will be minor compared to the long term cost of the damage to the company’s reputation.

In conclusion, of all the points above the most important is that if you have a high profile event like the opening of Terminal 5 you need to make sure that it does not go wrong in the first place! Make use of risk management, contingency plans, good organisation and well trained staff. As oft quoted in the news, the Olympics are coming to Britain in 2012 and so the organisers should take note of the lessons learned from Terminal 5.

Charlie Maclean-Bristol MBCI FEPS, director, PlanB Consulting

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Reader comments

First, allow me to say that I appreciate the dialogue that Charlie Maclean-Bristol has started by offering such a well written article. However, as to substance, I must say that I can’t agree with much of what he says. Please permit this Yank to offer an unsolicited view of the problem:

1 – ‘Don’t let it Happen’. This has all the aspects of waiting until it is perfect before we launch. Our role is to help the business continue; our discipline stresses testing as the way to do this. A phased approach does not protect against a failure when the parts come together. In fact, a full simulation (testing) is the best tool to employ and even that approach can be proven wanting when real people are introduced into the equation.

2 – ‘Take responsibility…’ I couldn’t agree more. Coming from the litigious States of America, however, caution is the watch word. Enough said.

3 – ‘Take radical steps…’ I couldn’t agree less. The people implementing the solution will be frazzled enough trying to do a good job under bad conditions. Taking them too far from their knowledge base and comfort zone only increases the probability of more things going wrong.

4 – ‘Buy goodwill’. Allow me to quote those great British philosophers “Money can’t buy you love”. I agree that fair and appropriate reimbursement for the inconvenience is appropriate, but don’t expect people to be fair in their demands (remember the woman that sued McDonalds for millions of dollars because she spilled hot coffee on herself). At the end of the day people will remember the incident –maybe- but not the money.

Lastly, “In conclusion, of all the points above the most important is that if you have a high profile event like the opening of Terminal 5 you need to make sure that it does not go wrong in the first place!” In the real world this is just not possible. When 2012 comes around people will fly into Heathrow eager to see great performance, enjoy the wonderfully rich surroundings that England has to offer and no one will remember the events of Terminal 5 opening day.

Mike Colantonio

The sad attempt by senior managers of British Airways and BAA to manage this incident showed a lack of control which, in my personal opinion, borders on gross negligence. All the points made in Charlie’s article are accurate to the point of stating the blindingly obvious: business continuity management (and in this case crisis management) is about planning for the worse and hoping for the best; it’s about common-sense - something that the British Airways and BAA senior teams seemed devoid of! Even the novice amongst us knows that the last thing you do is leave reporters to find their stories from the disgruntled customer! Keep the reporters fed: both literally and figuratively! They need information; they have deadlines; Control the incident and you control the outcome! It’s almost the ABC of management!! On the day of the opening of Terminal 5, the head of British Airways was talking about the achievement and the 'world class service'… but when it all went wrong he wasn't to be seen for almost THREE days!! When contacting British Airways media desk their response was (and I quote) "There's no media statement to make because everything is going as we had planned."… (?!)

The lessons learnt, I feel, are quite simple; Be honest. Be Open. Treat your customers fairly and with respect, and be realistic! The estimated cost of this crisis is approximately £16 million, but the cost to the reputation of British Airways is going to be significantly higher. I would TRULY love to see the risk log for this project!

Gary Hibberd
Business Continuity Manager

Date: 2nd April 2008• Region: UK •Type: Article •Topic: Crisis management
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