Two major UK companies have been affected by large-scale technology issues this month.
As I write, the disruption caused by a large-scale technology failure is still causing headaches for British Airways’ (BA) staff and delays for their passengers.
Two weeks ago, it was the National Health Service (NHS) which was suffering, with somewhere in the region of 50 NHS Trusts falling victim to varying degrees of a WannaCry/WanaCrypt ransomware attack. BA’s computer woes took technology problems a step further, with problems beginning last week with outgoing baggage delivery. Flights were leaving without passengers’ cases due to a failure with the conveyor belts at Heathrow.
British Airways technology failure
Then, news broke on Saturday that all BA flights from Heathrow and Gatwick were cancelled until 6 pm that day due to an unspecified global technology failure. On one of the busiest weekends of the year (the late May Bank Holiday and the start of half term for many schools), this was little short of catastrophic news. Worse was that the IT experts didn’t seem to know what had caused the system to go down. The front line staff at the check in desks weren’t able to help much either, although they did their best. The outage also affected rebookings, check in, new bookings via the website – just about every area of British Airways’ business.
Technology staffing restructured
Last year BA made two seemingly significant changes to its technology provision. The company installed a new system (which has now crashed once every two months on average since installation). It also outsourced its IT provision, which likely means fewer specialists on the ground to react when things go really badly wrong, as they apparently did this weekend.
Flight delays are not new
Most travellers will be used to occasional delays, due to charter flights not arriving on time, weather at the other end or en-route to their destination, or even weather-related issues here in the UK. But technological faults are a relatively new phenomenon and open up a whole new book on compensation payments too. If a delay is caused by circumstances within an airline’s control, passengers are entitled to claim for compensation.
BA is likely to find itself with a rather large bill as those affected seek reimbursement for delayed flights, lost luggage, unexpected expense and even, in one case, a delayed wedding. Analysts believe the financial cost to the airline could be in the order of £100 million, not to mention the longer-term effect on their share price. The company’s reputation has taken quite a knock, especially as the complete failure comes on the back of the recent disruption to baggage handling at Heathrow’s Terminal 5 just before the holiday weekend.
Speculation about the cause
Several theories are currently circulating regarding the possible cause of such a complete IT meltdown. Some sources believe it was down to a faulty patch; officials are saying it was an electrical problem which caused physical damage to servers. Unions are still maintaining that the outsourcing of IT jobs last year had something to do with it, although this has been discredited elsewhere.
What is certain, however, is that around 75,000 people were affected and hundreds of flights were cancelled. The situation is slowly returning to normal, although full schedules were not resumed until earlier today (Tuesday). Many passengers are still awaiting their delayed baggage, while extra staff have been employed to help deal with the customer service workload of processing the expected compensation payments.
How much longer British Airways’ reputation takes to repair is up for discussion.