Joe Carlebach is a councillor in Hammersmith and Fulham.
Like many, I watched in disbelief as British Airways descended into utter chaos when flights from Heathrow, Gatwick and beyond were suspended for most of the weekend. The chaos was caused by a “major IT systems failure” which the unfortunate Chief Executive of BA Alex Cruz (no, I had never heard of him, either) said was a “power-supply issue”, going on to assure us that there was “no evidence of any cyberattack”.
How a “power-supply issue” could have brought one of the world’s great airlines to a grinding halt beggars belief. Those of us who have spent time in the technology world are astounded at this reason as you would expect any mission critical systems in a company of this size and national importance to have a significant power resilience infrastructure.
What was really shocking, was seeing the lines of BA customers stuck at airports – many with children trying to get away for half-term. Hard-working, hard-pressed families, already financially penalised by having to pay school holiday premiums for their get away, were now faced with the prospect of a truncated break. BA’s answer to the crisis was, for the most part, to ignore their customers, leaving them to go to the media for updates. The complete absence of any visible BA management on the ground and any briefing for the poor BA staff who were brave enough to try to help is nothing short of astonishing.
Equally shocking was the apparent absence of BAA staff to help those clearly in distress. Many passengers reported having to sleep in terminals overnight with no blankets and little or no refreshments – not even a cup of tea!
Many have had their holidays, honeymoons, and business trips ruined and yet there seems to be little or no accountability. Where was Willie Walsh, the great Chief Executive of BA’s parent company, International Airlines Group (IAG)? He has been very visible over issues such as the unpopular building of Heathrow’s third runway. He was even pretty quick to defend his rather large remuneration, and indeed he admitted that he was “very well paid” with a total remuneration of £2.4 million for 2016.
To be very clear, I have no objection at all to substantial executive pay packages, however they need to be earned. Clearly IAG’s results were good last year: the group’s pre-tax profits for the year were €2.36 billion, against €1.8 billion for 2015, on revenue down 1.3 per cent to €22.6 billion. The question is: at what cost? Clearly there has been a lack of investment in critical infrastructure, a lack of contingency planning and a catastrophic failure of management and communication. I don’t think any rational person can argue with that.
I also have to wonder what else has been starved of cash under Walsh’s tenure, and what will go wrong next.
It is worth remembering that he has form here: many will remember the disastrous opening of Terminal 5.
So my challenge to Walsh is this: come out of the shadows and explain this debacle to your customers. Do not hide behind your hapless juniors who clearly have lost the plot. You need to give some real assurances to your customers that you will do everything in your power to avoid this kind of chaos and distress again. Frankly, thats what you get the large salary for.
Bad things happen, that’s life in the real world; but real managers make sure that contingencies are in place to mitigate the impact on ordinary customers.
As Conservatives, we talk a good game about representing the concerns of hard working, hard pressed families, now it’s time to show what that means. Many of these families and other passengers will have saved for months, and in some cases years, to pay for their flights and hotels. Many of their trips have now been ruined. Someone needs to stand up for them, hold executives to account and get some answers. We should commit to summoning the leadership of IAG and BAA to the House to explain themselves as soon as possible. The Department of Transport needs to be reminded that a substantial airline tax is levied on all tickets bought in the UK. A nice earner for the Government, but it is not unreasonable for the travelling public to expect some help in their hour of need from the immediate beneficiary of this tax revenue.
Finally, this chaos has also led me (and many others) to ask if we are really going to allow BA and BAA (who were partners in this fiasco) to lead the expansion of Heathrow, when so many of us already have so many real concerns? Given their current form, they do not appear to be either the fit or proper authorities to do this.