British Airways has been forced to ground all flights today after what the airline called a ‘major IT system failure’ that occurred on Saturday morning. Sources have now told us that a ‘power surge’ was the cause of the outage. Speaking on condition of anonymity, the source said efforts to restore services had been hampered by BA’s decision to outsource IT services earlier this year.
We are led to believe that the power surge took down both the main computer system and the backup system which is designed to work independently in the event of a major incident. BA has since said a ‘power supply issue’ was the cause of the meltdown but has refused to provide further detail.
Pictures have spread on social media of chaotic scenes in Terminal 5, Heathrow, where British Airways is based. Similar scenes have been witnessed at Terminal 3 and Gatwick Airport, where BA also operates flights. Passengers have been forced to endure cramped conditions as crowds spilled outside due to overcrowding in the terminal buildings.
We have learnt that as of 5 pm British Airways has already run out of hotel rooms for the thousands of stranded passengers. Managers are urging customers to find their own accommodation and then claim back ‘reasonable’ expenses from the airline. Sources have told us that BA has very limited resources to help ‘vulnerable’ customers.
All Flights Grounded – BA Spokesperson
As the full extent of the problems became apparent, British Airways initially said it would be forced to cancel all flights until 6 pm (UK time). But rumours soon started to emerge that this was overly optimistic and the entire BA fleet would be grounded worldwide for the whole day. The airline eventually released this statement, some two hours later:
“Following the major IT system failure experienced earlier today, with regret we have had to cancel all flights leaving from Heathrow and Gatwick for the rest of today, Saturday, May 27.”
The spokesperson continued: “We are working hard to get our customers who were due to fly today onto the next available flights over the course of the rest of the weekend. Those unable to fly will be offered a full refund.”
In the meantime, British Airways is urging passengers to stay away from Heathrow Airport due to severe overcrowding.
Of course, this isn’t the first time that British Airways has experienced a major IT failure in recent months. Earlier this year, the airline introduced a new check-in system called ‘FLY’ to replace a decades-old computer programme. Passengers faced weeks of delays as check-in agents got to grips with the new system.
Long List of Similar Incidents
Then, in April, the airline experienced a nearly 7-hour computer meltdown that British Airways attributed to a database upgrade that went wrong. The latest malfunction is said to be unrelated to ‘FLY’ but is affecting every aspect of the check-in process. Agents have been forced to manually check-in every passenger and piece of luggage.
With the baggage handling system down, the airline has decided to leave behind suitcases rather than try to manually sort the backlog. It could take days for British Airways to repatriate all the abandoned cases with their owners.
At least BA is in good company – a spate of computer glitches have caused big problems at a number of international airlines in the last year. Last August, a fire at the Delta Air Lines data centre in Atlanta led to three days of cancellations. Delta was forced to ground 2,300 flights in the incident that cost the airline $150 million USD in lost revenue. The airline was hit by a smaller outage in January that also hit passengers hard.
In July, a damaged router at Southwest Airlines led to the cancellation of 2,000 flights. And United Airlines grounded all domestic flights for nearly 2½ hours in January because of a problem with the system used to send technical information to the flight decks iPad’s. Just a few weeks later and United had to battle with another computer glitch that delayed rather than cancelled hundreds of flights.
Customer Service Fails to Keep Up
But what sets British Airways apart is a seemingly complete disregard for customer care. As the UK gears up for a long Bank Holiday weekend, staffing levels at BA’s hub at Heathrow were already far below levels required for the anticipated passenger demand.
Yet even as the magnitude of the problems became apparent, the airline was slow (very slow) to react. Perhaps hoping that the issue would soon be resolved, managers were not called in and service desks remained unstaffed.
Thousands of passengers who were eager for information had to rely on rumour and social media to get updates on the situation. There have been reports that during the course of 8 hours only one public announcement was made in Terminal 5. Under European aviation regulations, delayed passengers are entitled to food and beverages – but many passengers haven’t even been offered a bottle of water. Let alone refreshment vouchers and phone calls as legally stipulated.
No Updates on Social Media
For nearly eight hours the only information on the BA website was hidden away in the ‘Flight Updates’ section. Even then, the message was short and the information provided limited. Eventually, the airline created a splash page with a short update but told travellers to instead check media coverage for the latest information.
In an age of social media is this even remotely acceptable? Unlike many premium airlines, British Airways only offers 24-hour support on Twitter. It’s a popular network for customer service queries but responses often lag behind customer expectations. And it’s not even like most passengers use Twitter. In the U.S. where Twitter’s reach is most widespread, the network only has a 28.1% share of social media users.
As for Facebook, the airline just hasn’t got to grips with how to use the most popular social network for anything other than self-promotion. There’s no messaging functionality and the first update was posted on BA’s Facebook page nearly 5 hours after the IT meltdown occurred.
Where Are BA Managers?
Customers couldn’t even reach BA by phone. The computer glitch had also taken down the customer care telephone lines. As video content starts to dominate social media, a short message from BA’s CEO, Alex Cruz was only posted on YouTube, Facebook and Twitter at 7 pm (UK time).
But if BA is asking customers to check news media for updates why hasn’t Cruz or some other representative appeared on television news? Or provided an interview with a news organisation? To us, it appears as if the situation has got way ahead of BA management who just don’t seem to have a plan to handle the fallout.
It’s not even like British Airways doesn’t have experience in past customer service disasters. In January, heavy fog led to the cancellation of hundreds of flights at Heathrow. On that occasion, BA was yet again criticised for not reacting fast enough to care for its customers. But any hopes that British Airways had since improved its contingency plans have today been dashed.
If one were looking for a case study for how not to manage a crisis then the British Airways computer glitch of 2017 would be a good place to start.
We heave reached out to British Airways for comment but have not yet received a response.
Mateusz Maszczynski honed his skills as an international flight attendant at the most prominent airline in the Middle East and has been flying throughout the COVID-19 pandemic for a well-known European airline. Matt is passionate about the aviation industry and has become an expert in passenger experience and human-centric stories. Always keeping an ear close to the ground, Matt's industry insights, analysis and news coverage is frequently relied upon by some of the biggest names in journalism.