ATW Editor's Blog

The bigger questions of British Airways’ IT meltdown

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As with all disasters, natural or man-made, there comes a time for mopping up, analysis and self- examination. What was learned? How can this be avoided again? That’s where British Airways sits now, as schedules return to normal after the IT meltdown that essentially shut down its London Heathrow and Gatwick operations over the weekend.

The most obvious questions – how did this happen and how to prevent it again? – will be answered eventually. Most critically, BA needs to understand and explain why its backup system also failed after a power surge apparently knocked out the airline’s IT system. What’s the point of a backup if it depends on the same system that underpins the main IT system? If, as BA seems to believe, the IT failure was caused by a power surge, why was the backup system not on a separate grid?

But those will still be the relatively easy questions to address. More challenging will be how much damage has this done to BA’s reputation?

The timing for such a public fiasco could hardly have been worse. A UK holiday weekend when thousands of people who were anticipating a break, perhaps lying on a sunbed, instead ended up lying miserable on an airport floor. And all those images of frustrated, stranded passengers, horrific queues and piles of bags come as the US airlines are under a fierce spotlight for their customer service disasters. For many fliers and lawmakers, the BA meltdown will only confirm their belief that airlines will only give proper customer service when they are compelled to by regulation.

Yes, it’s important to note that BA’s IT failure did not cross any safety barriers. No aircraft or human was put in danger. But really, in 2017, what credibility does an airline have if all it can say that is it will get you to your destination in one piece? Safety is a given in this industry, which is as it should be. But this is also a service industry. Whatever your customer service promise, you had better deliver on it or get into the utilities business.

BA’s IT failure, coupled with what seems to have been a related difficulty in communicating to affected passengers timely information on the situation and their options, will lead most passengers to believe the one thing they have going for them is the European Union’s consumer compensation rules. For good reason, airlines have concerns about these rules and the pressure they put on carriers. But an incident like the BA failure means the EU rules will likely stay firm – perhaps even be bolstered and be copied by US lawmakers who are questioning customer service practices of American carriers.

BA is mopping up. But the consequences of its highly-visible failure could be less easy to sweep away.

Karen Walker Karen.walker@penton.com

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