Tuesday, August 21, 2007

When a System Breaks Down

Years ago we lived out in the English countryside. The local passenger trains were typically late, and the public address announcer would give the same speech once an hour, "Sorry for our most recent delay- insufficient rolling stock, poor labor relations, insufficient infrastructure expenditure, managerial incompetence, and the possibilty of leaves on the track seem to be the likely culprits today". It always got a laugh...

Welcome to London: Your Luggage Is Missing

Why British Airways Is Worse Than Even U.S. Airlines At Losing (and Finding) Bags
August 21, 2007; Page D1

The strains of the world's aviation system can be seen pretty clearly in Ned Soltz's moldy luggage.

On June 29, his suitcase was lost by British Airways PLC at London's Heathrow Airport on its way to Israel. Mr. Soltz, an Arlington, Texas, rabbi and digital video author, says British Airways often didn't answer baggage-office phones or respond to emails. When the bag finally was delivered to him by FedEx on Aug. 1 -- 15 days after his trip ended -- he says the suitcase was so water-logged that black mold was growing on his clothes and audio-visual equipment.
"It was tremendously stressful because they were so quintessentially unhelpful," he said.

British Airways has been a baggage nightmare for travelers since Christmas last year. Tens of thousands of bags have piled up at Heathrow at various times this summer. British Airways, the world's second-largest airline in international passenger traffic, mishandled 28 bags per 1,000 passengers in the second quarter this year, a rate that is twice as bad as the worst U.S. major airline, US Airways Group Inc. In all, British Airways has lost the bags of more than 550,000 customers in the first half of this year. The airline says it is sorry about customer experiences like Rabbi Soltz's and that its baggage operation is returning to "normal" now, but at Heathrow it is still susceptible to meltdowns when flights are delayed.

A look into the root causes of British Airways baggage problems reveals much about the state of airline dysfunction today. There's finger-pointing between various groups responsible for operations, plus a lack of manpower, aging equipment, jam-packed planes, security hassles and schedules packed too tightly together. Just like airport delays, bumped passengers and other travel problems this year, the British Airways baggage system shows how airlines have made operations so lean and taxed infrastructure so fully that problems compound exponentially for customers.

Traveler beware -- many of the problems likely won't ease until British Airways moves into a new Heathrow terminal in March, or the British government relaxes its security restriction allowing only one carry-on bag, which has sharply increased the volume of checked baggage.
After the alleged liquid-bomb plot was uncovered in August 2006, British authorities limited carry-on baggage to one piece -- period. The rest of the world lets travelers take two bags on board planes, usually one suitcase and one personal bag, like a briefcase or purse. That increased the volume of checked baggage on British Airways by about 15%. Added volume strained a system already overtaxed.

Regis Philbin launched into a rant on his "Live With Regis and Kelly" show last month about how British Airways lost two of his wife's suitcases, and returned one soaking wet. Mr. Philbin told his audience one of his wife's favorite Armani dresses was ruined.

Trudi Behr, a marketing consultant from Los Angeles, says she arrived at British Airways baggage claim area in Heathrow in late July to see luggage stacked 12-feet high. "There were rows and rows of bags," she said. Hers wasn't delivered, and a British Airways representative told her it would be on the next flight out of Rome, where she had been on a business trip.
"I fell for it," said Ms. Behr. She tried to track her bags through British Airways electronic system, but got no updates. She couldn't reach anyone to talk to. Then, 13 days after they were lost, the three bags arrived at her Los Angeles home, one each day for three consecutive days.
Some problems emanate from the airport itself. The Association of European Airlines says the Heathrow baggage system physically failed 10 times during May and June, including power failures and breakdowns in a tunnel of conveyor belts that move bags between British Airways buildings, Terminal 1 and Terminal 4.

Heathrow's owner and operator, BAA Ltd., "is delivering embarrassingly low service levels on everything from security wait-times to baggage delivery and almost everything in-between," Giovanni Bisignani, chief executive of the International Air Transport Association, said earlier this month.

BAA says problems have largely been airline problems, not airport. BAA, which is owned by Grupo Ferrovial of Spain, says it sorts bags for airlines and delivers them to drop points -- after that, it's all up to the airline.

"The airport's baggage system is extremely robust and is coping well since the one-bag rule was introduced in 2006," a BAA spokeswoman said. British Airways says weather has been a major factor -- fog last Christmas, storms this summer. That has meant widespread flight delays -- something the airline's baggage setup hasn't been able to cope with. While passengers run to get on their connecting flights, bags don't move as fast, and British Airways hasn't held airplanes waiting for their bags.

The carrier says there's only enough room in its baggage hall -- where bags for specific flights aggregate and are loaded onto carts -- for the scheduled number of flights each hour. The airline doesn't want planes sitting at gates waiting for bags because it needs the gate for other flights. And it doesn't have room in its baggage hall for delayed flights. Leave a station dedicated too long to a delayed flight and there's no place to put bags that customers are checking for upcoming flights. So it's round 'em up and move 'em out -- whether they get on the right flight or not.

"If the airline holds too many planes at Heathrow, gridlock can develop in terminal areas and taxiways. And it's the same for baggage," said David Noyes, head of British Airways' Heathrow operation. "The whole effect snowballs and it doesn't take long to get gridlock."

Sending customers without their bags only compounds problems because the delayed bags will have to undergo special security screening to fly later without their owners. That takes time and manpower.

Mr. Noyes says British Airways has supplemented the troublesome tunnel with vans and trucks and is in the process of hiring 340 more baggage handlers. The airline has used cargo carriers to ship out delayed bags. And British Airways has changed its schedule to add 15 minutes to its minimum connection times -- now 90 minutes for connections in different terminals and 75 minutes for connections in the same terminal.

In addition, British Airways has been hiring phone staff after realizing it didn't have enough workers to answer customer calls. It used to tell customers to call the baggage office where the bag was lost -- but Heathrow baggage workers were often out looking for bags and rarely answered the phone.

The ultimate solution, Mr. Noyes noted, is the March 27 opening of Terminal 5, which will greatly boost capacity and move 90% of the airline's operations under one roof.

Write to Scott McCartney at middleseat@wsj.com