Trebles all round

Congratulations to BAA and BA for the successful opening of Terminal 5 – it’s taken less than a week of live passenger testing to get the whole thing working pretty much as it’s supposed to.

If you think that achieving that kind of switchover in that kind of timeframe with the kind of really-rather-minor chaos that’s taken place is anything other than reasonably creditable, then you’re a churlish muppetteer with no knowledge of how things work in the real world. Which means you should probably seek a career in journalism…

I’ve no sympathy for anyone who was delayed, either. If you book to fly out of a new airport terminal the day after it opens, what on earth do you expect will happen…? I flew into T5 on Sunday, and was entirely unsurprised by the 35 minute wait at the gate to sort out some steps because the airbridge wasn’t working. Had I been particularly worried about 100% on-time arrival rather than interested to see the new terminal, I’d’ve flown a different airline.

(side note: anyway, who the hell takes hold luggage onto aeroplanes? You can easily get a fortnight’s clothes, a computer and plenty of stuff to read into a pair of hand-luggage-able bags, thereby shortening your arrivals time by at least 45 minutes and diminishing your chances of lost luggage to near-zero…)

23 thoughts on “Trebles all round

  1. Hmmm. That last reminds me of the story a female English chessplayer told me, about playing a tournament in a sunny country in summer and meeting a grandmaster at the airport, carrying just a small bag. Are you sure you have enough clothes? she asked, only to be told it wasn't clothes at all. "Don't worry, I am not planning on chasing any women during the tournament."

  2. Hehe. Still, you can definitely get a suit, a pair of trousers, five shirts, five t-shirts, a jumper, 14 pairs of pants and socks and a pair of shoes into a hand-luggagable bag, in addition to the shirt, trousers, shoes, jumper and overcoat you wear through the airport, and the laptop, work papers, iPod and books you put in your laptop bag. I know because that's what I've just come back from…

  3. Fair point well made.

    …although, who the hell thinks it's a good idea to not only alpha-test a new airport, but to do so with young kids in tow?

  4. Well, did British Airways tell anybody it wasn't? Did their website say "we warn all potential passengers to give the new terminal a miss until some other mugs have had a go first"?

  5. Until you've seen the architecture diagram here, you're not qualified to comment on the performance or otherwise of baggage-handling systems. That thing makes my brain grow hairs, and my specialisation is the IP Multimedia Subsystem:-)

  6. … oh *that* diagram. Hmm, looks no more complicated than the TABX.HE family of default swap indices ;-)

    Isn't John's major premise (that this was the alpha test of the bagge system) wrong though? I seem to remember that they did actually trial it live by testing it out on Terminal 4 last year – my boss got caught in the ensuing Scouse wedding and although I am not an expert, the chaos caused seems rather familiar.

  7. and finally, triple posting like the loon I am, are you not worried that now you've kicked this ball down the field, all sorts of people might pick it up and run with it?

    "What kind of an idiot takes the London Underground a few days after a major terrorist attack, etc etc …?" bla bla "how things work in the real world" etc etc.

    Terribly pointy-headed boss of me I know, but I still think there's something to be said for the old "understand a little less and condemn a little more" approach to things which ought to work and don't; I didn't need to study Rick Stein's recipe for bouillabaisse to make the judgement that it was oily and overpriced either.

  8. AIUI the reason the luggage system went disastrously wrong at T5 was to do with baggage handler arrival times, airside staff security procedures, and airside staff parking not being very well aligned – rather than software issues.

    I don't think the T4 software trials last year (if that's what the 'software update' which shagged everything up was, which would make some sense) did much to sort that out.

  9. Double posting in response… obviously I do think BA fucked up: they should have recognised things were going to go wrong and based their customer service and promotional strategy on "how can we avoid being horsewhipped when the systems don't work out of the box" rather than "yay, isn't our new airport lovely".

    The "real world" line is wanky and I'm ashamed of it from a prose style perspective. Still, as far as I'm concerned there's a very very big – like, so big that comparing one to the other is meaningless – difference between "we've delivered bad customer service; nobody's dead; some people are grumpy" and "somebody's dead", though…

  10. Cos Gatwick South is so unspeakably minging I only ever use it if a) the cost differential with a better airport is over £100 and b) I'm paying the bill myself.

    T3 at LHR used to be similar (and just about the only reason to not fly Virgin), although they've poshed it up a bit in the last few years.

  11. It's true that BA could have publicised the inevitability of problems, and broken T5 in a bit more gently, but I sympathise with the general idea that people bellyaching about what a disaster it was are a bit out of touch with the reality of very big projects.

    It reminds me of the endless articles decrying how terrible it is that government IT projects fail or run over budget so often, and how it shows everybody involved are morons and/or deliberately fleecing the taxpayer. Okay, I get the understand less condemn more idea, but it doesn't seem to occur to anybody that gigantic IT projects might, ooh I don't know, be very very difficult do?

    Once I saw some data on how many IT projects go wrong in the private sector (from some German software testing firm) but I can't find the source now. Anyway, it was very high. So what, the entire IT industry is run by morons? What a tragedy it is that all the smart people chose to work for Private Eye etc., while all the morons run businesses / government. If only it were the other way round!

    By the by, I wonder if there's some sound reason, to do with how you contract for these things, why you want to keep IT project budgets and schedules 'unrealistically' low to minimise the eventual cost and duration. Can't quite figure out what it is, though. I always hated contract theory.

  12. If you're EDS, it's rational to bid unrealistic budgets and timeframes to win the contract, and hope to make up for the inevitable penalties by getting variation revenue in excess of the losses when some politico changes the spec mid-contract.

    And if you're in government procurement, it's rational to choose the lowest bid from a credible firm to win the contract, and hope that the penalties will at least partly offset the variation costs when your minister changes the spec mid-contract.

    dsquared often comes out on an interesting and probably reasonable take on this kind of problem though, which is that even if it's entirely reasonable and unsurprising that a project has failed, we should still criticise, pillory and sack the people responsible, otherwise everyone will get the idea that it's acceptable for projects to fail all the time…

  13. Sure, I appreciate D2's argument, up to the point where it involves sacking perfectly competent people who are appearing to fail for some other persistent reason that is never addressed.

    I also agree, up to a point, about the incentives of both the bidder and principal, but what we see still strikes me as a rather strange state of affairs. Don't the procurement guys have any incentive to avoid well publicised disasters and cost overruns? I understand about variation charges etc. but not quite why procurement departments appear to be happy to accept contracts with such punishing variation clauses, soft penalties and upfront fees that are well known to be unrealistically low, when they could (I think) write contracts where variation is less costly, penalties harsher, and compensate the bidders with a higher upfront fee. From a distance, I don't see why the expected/average eventual cost project couldn't be kept the same, but the incidence of apparent 'failure' reduced. Is it as simple as the buyers (politicians, board of directors) are repeatedly duped by low upfront estimates, with no learning in the system? A major blow to the 'rational expectations' line of reasoning.

    See what I'm getting at (that there's still something a bit odd here)? I wonder if there's some other reason, that I can't see, why things are as they appear to be.

    Man, here I am trying to do an economic PhD with no decent research ideas … but contract theory melts my brain, and I'm supposed to be doing development economics.

  14. for some reason I wrote 'upfront fees' when I really mean the quoted project cost, or suchlike. I expect you figured that out.

  15. Please promise that you'll reproduce the "A week of cancellations and chaos are inevitable at the beginning of such a large and complicated operation, and hey, no-one's dead" excuse come the London Olympics….

  16. So, "it’s taken less than a week of live passenger testing to get the whole thing working pretty much as it’s supposed to".

    Was T5 supposed to work so well that after two weeks of "live passenger testing" BA would decide that they'd put back the date of moving their long-haul flights from T4 to T5 from the end of April to an indeterminate point in June?

    Remove the clothes peg from your nose John and you'll realise that the roses smell like shit.

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