Monday, March 31, 2008

Heathrow Airport Meltdown

Not to be outdone when it comes to airport chaos (we don't want DFW and O'Hare to get all the glory), the new Terminal 5 at London's Heathrow airport is not being described as a "glitch" but a "meltdown". At last a more accurate description!

I often comment in my "Process Improvement Using Root Cause Analysis" workshop that it is very interesting to see root cause analysis play out in the real world. So, the reason I'm mentioning this situation (still ongoing at the time of this writing) is because it's interesting to observe - kind of like watching a train wreck. Of course, I'm not one of the impacted passengers on British Airways.

I kept thinking, how similar this situation sounds like some of the computer system implementations I have seen, except not on such a grand scale.

Here's one link for the story:

There have been cascading problems:

1) Lack of parking for baggage handlers caused them to spend time looking for where to park, therefore showing up late for work, thereby delaying the handling of checked baggage.
2) Lack of security staff to even let the baggage handlers into the airport.
3) A coding error that prevented from baggage handlers from logging onto the baggage handling computer system.
4) Lack of training for the baggage handlers which caused confusion of where to pick up bags and how to take them to the planes.
5) Then...a breakdown of the transit system that carries people from terminal 5 to the satellite terminal 5B.

Is this deja vu all over again? Anyone remember Denver International Airport's "state of the art" automated baggage system that was finally scrapped last year after $193 million?

In the Evening Standard of March 28th, we find some interesting information:

1) The new automated baggage system which has 10 miles of conveyor belts, 140 computers, designed to process 12,000 bags per hour had never been tested in a live terminal. That would be quite a load test, but still...there were many things both manual and automated that failed that such a test might have found.

2) Small delays in a conveyor system can have a huge impact. Remember the old "I Love Lucy" episode where the chocolates just kept on coming?

3) People played a huge role, although not their fault. Lack of parking, security and training amounted to "no hands on board."

4) There apparently was another computer error that failed on being able to "stack and shelve" baggage that needs to be held for several hours for longer layovers. This required human intervention to correct (not the code, but getting the bags to the right places).

5) There was training...just not enough. The baggage handlers got 5 days of training.

6) There were practice runs since September, but problems apparently were seen as late as last week.

7) Other problems: broken down walkways and elevators and airport monitors not working

8) The clock is ticking. More flights scheduled to move into T5 on April 30.

As one person commented, "I don't think there was one person here who knew what was going on."

The situation got so bad that British Airways suspended baggage check in at the worst peak.

It will be interesting to see how this all plays out. I certainly wish them all the best success!

By the way, I'll mention one of my favorite services: For $10 a month you can read up to 30 issues of papers from around the world, just like you see them in paper form.

Stay tuned!

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