Watching the unfolding PR disaster for British Airways over the catastrophe surrounding the new Terminal 5 at Heathrow airport during the past 48 hours, one word springs to mind.
For the past day and a half, the newspapers and TV news have been full of images of chaos at T5: cancelled flights, nightmare baggage handling (BA already has a pretty poor track record with baggage handling), passengers sleeping overnight in the terminal building, confused employees, angry travellers, and so on.
Hardly the outcome anyone would expect after the build-up to the opening of the brand new building, the largest covered edifice in the UK and the eventual new home for all BA flight operations at Heathrow.
Over the past few months, superlatives have readily tripped off BA’s tongue about the amazingness of their new terminal and the wonderful experiences everyone would enjoy as it ushers in a new era of stress-free travel.
"Upgrade to British Airways new Terminal 5," says BA’s new T5 website which extols the virtues of this architectural wonder, including a moving image sequence highlighting various aspects of the expected passenger experience, such as illustrated in the screenshot above about the new baggage handling system.
Oh that the starting passenger experience had actually matched this utopian promise!
It seems obvious that too much of the T5 promise has been built on quicksand – what many would readily describe as PR spin.
Lots of stories of employees not knowing what to do or how to operate equipment, for instance. People getting confused by signage on how to get to the terminal, the failure of the baggage handling system from the start, etc.
This leaves the communicators with not a great deal around which to construct positive messages. And at least they’re admitting some mistakes.
Now just waiting for someone to trot out the favoured phrase at times like this: "Lessons will be learned," etc.
In any case, what I find hard to understand is that BA have been preparing for this for over six months including a dry run with thousands of potential travellers and employees just a few months ago.
Didn’t they find and fix the glitches then? I guess not. Surely they cannot have imagined that everything on The Day would actually be as serene as their new T5 website portrays?
Or maybe they did as all the PR talk indicates. If so, that’s more alarming than the chaos that has ensued.
Still, once they sort it all out, no doubt Terminal 5 will live up to some sort of passenger experience expectation.
If anyone is still willing to trust BA, that is.
The Heathrow chaos is an unmitigated disaster for BA and for people stranded and without baggage. My colleague was affected – going for a week’s skiing in Canada and still (three days into the holiday) having no luggage!
BA could have handled things so much better – keeping people informed, closing the feedback loop and making sure they owned all the conversations that were happening about the fiasco at T5. We’ve put together some free consulting advice for BA on customer engagement and how things could have been better:
It seems to be an unending nightmare, Matt. Just now reading a BBC News report saying that at least 15,000 bags are piled up at Heathrow.
I continue with a sense of amazement at how British Airways has so far handled this fiasco. Whether or not the preparations leading up to the opening of T5 should have been better completed (and it’s pretty obvious they should have been), it seems clear that if BA had a crisis plan in place (hard to believe they did), no one knew how to execute on that plan.
What a mess. And such damage to their reputation and brand. Irreversible damage? Probably not but severe damage all the same.
On the surface is seems like the term ‘PR disaster’ is a bit unfair. ‘Operational disaster’ seems more fitting. That things went sooooo wrong for what must be one the most important events ever for BA and BAA is truly shocking.
But when you consider how poorly expectations were managed in advance of T5’s opening, how badly crisis communications are being handled, and how the whole mess has done untold damage to both companies’ reputations, it’s clear that calling it a ‘PR disaster’ is appropriate.
Heads should roll for this. Many of them.
The real trust test for BA as a company, and for its CEO and head of communications, is how quickly they sort this unholy mess out. It’s not looking good as news reports everywhere are talking about what we’ve seen at Heathrow over the past few days carrying on well into the coming week.
Maybe on a lesser scale but cancellations, delays, lost bags, etc, continuing.
This continuing PR disaster will be a discussion topic in FIR on Monday.
[…] might recall the disaster of Terminal 5 when it opened in March: baggage system failure, scenes on TV of passengers sleeping on the floor, […]
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