A few PR thoughts on the BA system outage

Last week we published something on HFP which, whilst totally innocent, inadvertently had the potential to cause us a PR problem if it had been publicised.  We shut it down quickly with a full and genuine apology to the people concerned and the problem went away.

This is not the first time we have done this.  Our strategy in such cases is to openly and immediately admit our mistakes, make whatever corrections are needed, make sure no-one has lost out and move on.

I only mention this because we all have to do crisis management from time to time.  I dealt with far bigger ones during my 16 years in the City but I followed the same basic principles as I do with HFP issues.

I said on Sunday that I wasn’t going to start talking about the ‘why’ and ‘how’ aspects of the great BA system outage.  I’m not an IT specialist and even if I was I doubt I could add much.  Aimless speculation is just a waste of screen space.

What is clear, though, is that British Airways was totally unprepared for this.

I am 100% sure that British Airways has a plan in place in case of a plane crash.  (Apparently as a ‘media outlet’ I am meant to have a strategy in place for the death of the Queen, although I must admit we haven’t done so yet.  Ideas welcomed on that one.)

Realistically, though, a total BA system outage was always far more likely than the loss of an aircraft.  The new FLY passenger control system fell over numerous times last year, although the system was never down for more than a few hours.  US airline Delta had an identical outage to the British Airways incident last year.  It was, surely, only a matter of time before the same thing happened here.

What we have seen over the weekend, however, is the absence of any planning at all.  The correct solution, of course, would have been simple.  Tell passengers you are truly sorry, that they should make whatever arrangements are necessary to get to their destinations, and that BA will guarantee to refund them.  That’s it.

Mail cover

Would some people have exploited it?  Potentially, but a very minimal cost overall to BA.  What we saw instead was an astounding collection of stories which will no doubt make a great PR case study one day:

BA refused to transfer passengers in London to other airlines.  I know one Gold Guest List member who managed to get himself moved via the GGL hotline to a oneworld partner, but no-one else.  There were flights taking off every 3 minutes on Saturday with empty seats which could have been filled with British Airways passengers, but BA refused to move passengers across. 

(For clarity, my understanding is that airlines do not pay the going rate when this happens.  There is an industry standard in place.  A few years ago Lufthansa moved me from Lufty First Class to Emirates First Class when my Lufthansa connection was cancelled and I promise you that LH didn’t pay Emirates £4,000 per person.)

Outside London,  BA has been moving passengers to other airlines BUT there are reports that Avios redemption tickets are being excluded as they are non-transferable and passengers told to wait for the next day with an available BA seat.

BA is refusing to refund passengers who booked tickets on other airlines using their own initiative.  To quote one Flyertalk user last night:  “I booked a flight back to Glasgow using easyJet from Stansted on the basis that: I couldnt get through on any phone line, I couldn’t get the website to work, Skyscanner was reporting no available seats on BA to Glasgow and we were told not to go to the airport.  Now BA have told me (via twitter DM) that they wont compensate me for my easyJet flight.”

I have independent reports that both the call centre and some airport staff were telling some passengers on Saturday not to try claiming EC261 compensation because the incident was caused by a lightning strike and was therefore “weather related”.  There now seems to be an acceptance that lightning had nothing to do with it.  

However, BA can also claim an exemption for EC261 by claiming “extraordinary circumstances” although any attempt to do that would almost certainly end in court.  It is already trying this one as this tweet shows:


Looking again at Flyertalk, BA is not protecting return flights where the tickets were booked as 2 x one-way tickets.   They will rebook your outbound flight from the weekend without charge but – if your inbound was booked separately – you are stuck and will need to buy a new return.

And let’s not talk about the merits of having Alex Cruz wear a hi-viz vest so he looked like a school lollipop man in his TV and video appearances, despite being filmed sitting in an office.   Or BA stating that everything would be OK on Sunday, when 75 flights ended up being cancelled.

It is all trivial and petty.  The impression it gives is that the first priority of the airline is to avoid paying out a single penny more than is necessary which is ironic as the press coverage is focusing on whether cost cutting was the cause of the problem in the first place.

It is also insulting to the thousands of BA staff members, many of whom came in voluntarily to help out, who were trying their best all weekend in the face of a total IT wipe-out.

No-one expected BA to have a few hundred call centre workers on standby.

No-one expected them to be able to rustle up extra aircraft at no notice and be able to keep Heathrow open all night to clear the backlog.

No-one expected them to break the strict rules on pilot and crew working hours in order to get people away.

People understand all this.

What people don’t understand is why a company appears to be putting its unwillingness to pay out compensation ahead of any desire to get its passengers away as quickly as possible.  At the end of the day, the raft of empty seats leaving Heathrow over the weekend belonging to other airlines is the real testament to the way this problem was handled.

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  1. Rob

    It’s now 1600 on Tuesday and there’s still no sign of Willie Walsh appearing on TV to boast about how well he’s done creating IAG.

    Think you should give the Qatar tickets to the first reader to spot Willie (what are the odds he’s on holiday somewhere nice?)

  2. zsalya says:

    “Tell passengers you are truly sorry, that they should make whatever arrangements are necessary to get to their destinations, and that BA will guarantee to refund them.”
    This is Distributed Processing – brilliant – use thousands of passengers’ motivation, resourcefulness, and varying priorities/flexibilities to solve the bulk of the problem.
    Even better if preceded by some quick agreements (or better, standing agreements) with other airlines that those other airlines will pass say 50% of said revenues to BA.

    For anything under GBP1k this is what I would do anyway, and claim afterwards as the way that I minimised my loss caused by their breach of contract.
    One thing that airlines and other could do to help this would be to “give up” on certain subsets earlier rather than later, E.g. “we are cancelling all short-haul services for the next 8 hours” rather than hang on hoping that things will get better, but in many cases making alternative arrangements more difficult.

    • Speedbird676 says:

      During my time at BA, your approach is the one that was usually adopted. Domestic flights would be cancelled first and either replacement coaches or compensation for train tickets would be provided. Then shorthaul services would be cancelled while longhaul services would be looked at strategically, ie: could services be combined where there are multiple frequencies and one is not full. I suspect there was complacency that the outage wasn’t going to last as long which is why they “kept hanging on”, eventually cancelling everything which then created mass chaos.

  3. Andrew Clark says:

    So I called up Amex expecting that my hotel cancellation would be covered under my Platinum Card insurance. Apparently the cancellation, when caused by the airline, is just a postponement and so I’m due the square root of nothing. This is fine as I have proper travel insurance but definitely means you can’t avoid having travel insurance and expect the card insurance to cover you for much.

    • Daniel Jones says:

      Andrew – BA should payout for this – isn’t this a Montreal convention claim – hotel claims due to a flight not happening is a Montreal convention claim – forget EU261 here.

      • I’m in the same boat as Andrew. I know BA won’t pay out on a holiday hotel booking. Fortunately, I have comprehensive travel insurance and won’t even bother with BA for that one. I will claim £185 from BA for our Saturday night accommodation due to the cancelled flight, though. Is this clear enough for you, Daniel?

    • nangvil says:

      Andrew – which comprehensive travel insurance do u have that covers that?

    • I just called AmEx traven insurance (Annual Prestige policy) and they also said that they would also not cover hotel cancellation or even baggage delay. Nothing at all!

      So, I’m in the market for new policy. Which company are you with that covers this?

      • nangvil says:

        Ben – can you explain more about your circumstances? I’m surprise they would not cover it

  4. Yep, IT issues aside BA performed abysmally in this (thoroughly predictable) situation. Really disappointed in them not having proper plans in place and immediately able to roll out. They should have made the decision to cancel all Saturday’s flights much much earlier in the day (as soon as it became clear the scale of the problem), allowed passengers to make their own alternative arrangements and also deployed flight crews that were no longer able to fly to help with distribution of water, snacks, mobile chargers, etc. to passengers.

    UKBF and Heathrow themselves also didn’t cover themselves in glory – they should have had contingency plans in place to rapidly ramp up staffing numbers to stop queues building up as people tried to leave T5.

  5. Nick_C says:

    Lost hotels, car hire etc – if you paid by credit card and the flights cost more than £100, you have a S75 claim against the CC company for consequential losses.

    • Polly says:

      Nick,Alan, l actually think that this is the BA strategy now. Use the credit card clause…and pax own insurances…you couldn’t make it up…they are smart bean counters over there in iag. Can’t believe ww not apologised yet!

    • Oonagh cacioppo says:

      Does “cc” include Platinum Amex bearing in mind previous statement re hotel bookings?

  6. Ruth4325 says:

    PR 101 – if you’re going to appear in a hi-viz jacket to appear like you’re in control of the crisis, at least have the decency to stand in front of a plane/contact centre/airport. But never your office! BP can tell you that, at their cost.

  7. Tel Anaw says:

    We can be as angry as we like on here and pretend we’re not going to use BA in future. Having said that, they have a near monopoly on landing slots at the UK’s ‘premier’ airport. I don’t see us building more premier airport capacity anytime soon, so as a country, we’ve regulated to give BA a license to print money, regardless of service. Walsh and Cruz know this and do what they can to stifle any competition to preserve their rent-seeking enterprise. This problem runs way deeper than some incompetence in business continuity planning, crisis management and IT infrastructure. If anything, its a showcase of the UK rent-seeking economic model.

    • Fair points, do you reckon Corbyn would try and nationalise BA as well? 😀

      • Nigel says:

        Doubt he’s ever been on a plane……

        • He was booked on BA to fly to GLA on Saturday, didn’t go too well.

      • Tel Anaw says:

        Nationalising BA? That would be far too imaginative and innovative. No, I’d suggest addressing competition in airports in the South East as a start. How about slapping another runway on Gatwick and connecting it by high speed rail to central London so it’s just as convenient as LHR? How about upgrading that line to Stansted too? Imagine the capacity then with three ‘premier’ London airports. I’m sure there would be plenty of investors willing to finance the thing with housing development near new regional high speed lines into central London. I heard houses were in short supply in London after all. With that sort of space for competition, it would be interesting to see how BA fared. Just some thoughts.

        • londonsteve says:

          Fully agree. Alas, it’s the kind of imaginative progressive thinking the UK is institutionally incapable of exhibiting, arguably wilfully avoids as it doesn’t serve short term profit making goals.

    • Fuggi says:

      I wouldn’t underestimate the power of the market to produce a premium carrier without the balance sheet loads that IAG has. An astute businessman would recognize there is a market for a product at the quality/price balance which BA used to provide and is slowly shifting out of.

      • the real harry1 says:

        Richard Branson surely has one last trick up his sleeve? Virgin Europe would suit me great!

  8. Nigel says:

    According to the 2 electricity suppliers of the BA (Speedbird) HQ area there was no power surge. So either 2 electricity suppliers are fibbing or Cruz is fibbing or misinformation is being given to either the elec suppliers or Cruz by their respective minions trying to cover their backsides. It could of course be another viral attack (as per the NHS) by whoever you like to blame for such things. Remember the number of times that you get error messages on the BA website when trying to make a booking? Seems to me they are using old programming and hence insecure programming…….
    Oh yes one final point, isn’t Cruz North American? Wasn’t is a North American airline that beat up a Doctor who was innocently sitting is his assigned seat waiting to fly?? Huge embarrassment for the airline. Maybe North American bosses are only good at being bossy and simply don’t care….
    We thought that WW was bad but Cruz seems to be no improvement whatsoever……..Please do not (whoever takes over next) try to reduce BA to a Mickey Mouse Irish airline or to a USA sky coach!!

    • I had always assumed the power surge issue was at their outsourced operations in India rather than in the UK!

      • The data centre is likely to be controlled from India. Actually physically shifting it there when Tata got the contract would have been too messy.

        • Fenny says:

          Not necessarily. A global “IT consultancy” business close to where I used to work packed up its entire data centre and shifted it to Poland a few years ago. They then moved to a smaller building across the business park. My apprentices got loads of overtime for helping with the move, but didn’t get to go to Poland, as had been originally discussed as part of their training.

        • Although if Tata offered them a discount to do so then Alex probably leapt at the chance 😀

    • Fuggi says:

      Cruz is Spanish, although I believe nationality has very little to do with all this

  9. RedAlan says:

    BA messed up our connecting flight. LHR>GLA and our group had a 9 hour wait till the next available flight. One member of the group decided that was far too long and no longer required this connection, is that person entitled to any compensation still?

    Would seem a bit unfair in my view the rest of the group get compensation but one person doesn’t even though BA still caused them problems.

  10. Tom Murray says:

    No one’s commented on the security situation – only on Saturday did UK Gov ‘lower’ its JTAC threat level from ‘critical’ – an attack is expected imminently to ‘severe’ – an attack is highly likely. Did anyone consider the risk from thousands of pieces of ‘unaccompanied’ luggage stacking up landslide and airside in T5 and LGW South.
    Hopefully terrorists would cut BA a break on Sat and Sun and take pity on the human and economic disaster that was unfolding. Social media should be trumpeting #luckybreak #rollofthedice
    It just shows how what is important one minute – nay ‘critical’ in T May’s language – is totally unimportant the next when stacked up against economic meltdown #phew

    • Fenny says:

      Let’s not even think about the requirement of packing everyone’s laptops. tablets and games consoles in the hold, rather than transporting them in the cabin.

      All the differing rules on what is or isn’t dangerous and likely to be a cause of trrrrrrr change on a minute by minute basis. How many times do we go through security and are told we do / don’t have to take our shoes off or any of the other pretty random things. Even whether the clear plastic bag with your liquids in varies on whether it must have a zip lock or not, or whether the airport can provide one free of charge or fleece you for a standard freezer bag.

  11. Londonbus says:

    This must be a record number of comments on an HfP article. It shows two things:

    * How closely readers engage with BA and….

    * How badly BA have screwed up.

    • Polly says:

      No, the biggest number of comments I think! Was the day 3v gifts cards for sale ended in tesco! It was a huge shock to us all. We were not the target audience for that product, so the supporting bank in Dublin were losing money left right and centre. Don’t think they have recovered yet!

  12. James67 says:

    I don’t recall BA making a song and dance a few years back when Sri Lankan moved our reservations in their direction. People should know that the best response is to take their business elsewhere. 159k avios to spend and after that I doubt I will ever set foot on a BA flight again. I don’t trust this forthcoming airside bidding venture, would not put it past BA to use it to their advantage at the expense of those holding redemption seats and with planes about to depart it would be almost impossible to do anything about it. The very thought of travelling with BA these days is unnecessarily stressful.

  13. Fuggi says:

    Raffles – I think your point that “it’s the way they reacted to the issue that’s the problem, not the issue itself” is the most accurate one out of all the press + blog coverage I have seen.

    I sincerely hope that your views make their way to the ears of the Qataris who own 20% of IAG, and Standard Life and Blackrock who own a combined 11% – the strategic direction of BA needs shareholder intervention as the high “£brand value” of BA is getting dramatically affected.

    • I cannot +1 this comment enough.

      • From my Maldives review of my experience of BA service, equally applicable to how Saturday went…

        “Whilst I do appreciate things go wrong, I believe it’s how a customer relations team responds to such events that allows it to maintain and even enhance the reputation of a brand.

        Unfortunately, I felt BA customer relations failed to deliver on this occasion and the service fell well below expectations. This is a great shame, as I respect the professionalism of BA’s long serving front line staff that do genuinely care about the customer experience.”


  14. I heard the problem was a power surge, thought in India it’s usually a power shortage.
    Mr Cruz could easily have avoided this by buying a power surge bar, I found one on Viking Direct (there are other suppliers for fairness) for £22.49, I’m sure he could have even claimed the VAT back if he kept the receipt for the accounts dept.
    BA is an irrelevance now in most of the country as they don’t fly anywhere, Other airlines do the job far better.

  15. If you actually read all the comments …..!

  16. I think the IT meltdown is great. It is one big major mess up which compliments all the smaller mess ups with FLY and with the airline in general. Sort of completes the package of mess ups. The best thing about this mess up is that now the general public are fully aware that BA (a) don’t have a clue (b) will give you the bare minimum possible if something goes wrong while at the same time going out of their way to make it difficult for you. This should do BA a lot of damage over the long term, which as far as I am concerned is a good thing. Until then I still have to keep flying with these idiots twice as week as there is no reasonable alternative for me.

  17. I can totally understand.
    I myself was stuck in BKK on Sunday arriving to a cancelled flight.

    Then there was an all out panic drive once the Desks opened.
    They tried putting me on an emirates flights the following day. They said they did not have to put me on a flight today and pretty much tough.
    So I googled some bits and found they have to offer me alternative flights. The S at the end of flight being the alternative.

    After an argument which I recorded he relented and said ok thai air. Apparently after searching for 30’seconds no seats. So I checked the Eva air app for seats which where available across all seat classes.
    Turned video back on asked for Eva Air.

    1 minute later he said no seats available.
    So I showed him my app results. He seemed pretty pissed off.
    Plus I hold status with Eva from my past Asian economic group meetings which incidentally had less then 10 days left.

    After some to and throwing between the standby counter at Eva and BA I got a seat. They bumped me from Club to Economy and pretty much said tough.
    Which I accepted. The Eva air rep was amazing she arranged for me to have access to Cathay Pacific lounge which has a great noodle bar.

    The lady BA rep who truly pissed off the ba manager to get me transferred and tried getting me club seat was truly amazing and I can not thank her enough and will look out for her on my August quarterly return trip.

    Over 2 hours late.
    But H4P had some great info from previous posts which gave me the boost to insist.
    Thank you.

  18. Derek Scott says:

    Slightly off Topic but still PR related, I do have to give credit for they way they handled an aircraft change once I was already in the Concorde Room. The change meant there was no longer a First Cabin, so was being downgraded.

    I received a voicemail (as I don’t answer calls from “unknown”), explaining the situation and would come and see me shortly to provide compensation. With 10 mins I had a Prepay MasterCard loaded with £500, lots of apologies and advice that I will also be due a refund of 75% of the fare class difference.

    Much as it’s disappointing, the fact they dealt with it swiftly, and more importantly, sincerely.. was appreciated. Considering the battering BA are getting correctly, I’m just giving a shout out to the ladies in blue… they are what makes flying BA a pleasure for me

  19. Polly says:

    Normam,. Lucky you, you see there is a policy somewhere to put pax on a different airline, if it suits BA. Now why on earth was that policy not followed on sat morning. There would have been a much more positive outcome for BA in general. At least pax would feel they were being helped, not hindered as reported here. What a missed PR op.

    Derek, it helped that you were a first class pax too, but again what a great PR outcome for you. So you will continue to use BA with no probs, whilst 1000s of others will never fly BA again….shame

    • Kinkell says:

      Polly, where is the policy ‘to put pax on different airlines if it suits ba’? Is it written down somewhere in the blurb? I’m just gathering all info for our next LH trip , already booked redemption CW 241, The slight downside is BA fly 3x Wk and Iberia fly daily, so if there are any issues, always good to have /quote policies etc!