London: First day of operations at London Heathrow's freshly inaugurated, $8.6 billion, Terminal 5 facility turned out to be disastrous for the operators, BAA and sole-users, British Airways (BA), as well as the passengers, who waited hours for their baggage or to board their flights, most of which got canceled anyway.
The first day was blighted by numerous technical problems, including that of the much publicized high-tech baggage handling system, geared to handle 12,000 pieces of luggage every hour. BA canceled 34 flights and suspended all baggage check-in after 5 pm, which forced passengers to opt between boarding with only carry-on bags or re-booking their flights.
BA director of operations, Gareth Kirkwood, said: "We sincerely apologize to those customers who have suffered disrupted journeys or baggage delays. We always knew the first day would represent a unique challenge."
Ironically, airport operator BAA and British Airways have been awaiting the launch of the new luggage system to improve the reputation of the airport, which has earned the nickname "Hassle Heathrow."
It appears that a three-step failure put the computer-controlled baggage system under pressure. With baggage handlers delaying unloading of aircraft, the baggage already on the conveyors piled up, putting pressure back to the point where new passengers arriving at the terminal were trying to check-in with their luggage. Large groups of arriving passengers found themselves waiting for as long as two hours, and also a number of flights departed before checked baggage could be loaded.
Late in the day, the computer controlling the system shut down operations completely because conveyors were filled to capacity.
"It is extremely disappointing that this should happen on the first day of our operations from Terminal 5," BA said. "We always knew the first day would represent a unique challenge because of the size and complexity of the move into Terminal 5." It added that "teething problems have included car parking provision, delays in staff security screening and staff familiarization with the terminal."
The shutdown occurred despite 18 months of extensive testing of 10.5 miles of conveyor belts, which is the largest such system in Europe. The system uses "trolleys" that can carry bags as fast as 23 mph.
UK Dept. for Transport said, "We expect British Airways and BAA to work hard to resolve these issues and limit disruption to passengers."