Does British Airways’ explanation stack up?

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The ultimate boss of British Airways, Willie Walsh who runs the airline’s parent company, has offered a little more detail about why their computer system crash-landed last week.

Put simply, an “engineer” cut the data centre’s power, messed up the reboot and fried the circuits, he has said.

His explanation has raised eyebrows amongst former British Airways IT workers I’ve spoken to.

There are big red “panic” buttons to cut all the power in the computer room.

You hit them as a last resort, if there’s a fire or someone’s life is in danger.

I’m told the buttons are mounted on the wall though and should be protected by a perspex box with a lift-up flap, so you can’t knock it by accident.

Rebooting the whole shebang isn’t simple either. You can’t just pull the red button back out again. I’m told you normally need to turn a special key at the same time to return the power.

There is also a strict check-list that you have to follow, just like BA’s pilots follow a strict check-list before taking off and landing their planes. I spoke to someone who used to write similar check-lists.

“You must fire things back up in the right order, synchronising the data,” they said.

After you’ve sorted the red button, you then need to flick all of the circuit breaker switches linked to each server, like flicking the switches back on in your fuse box at home after they’ve tripped.

Finally, you restart each server. It’s a gradual process rather than a surge, I’m told.

People I spoke to echoed the same thought: “I cannot see how that would cause a power surge.”

Another expert suggests there are other ways to power down a system. Maybe they were carrying out maintenance on something called a UPS (uninterruptable power supply), which is the battery back-up, designed to step in if the mains fails.

But if that’s what happened, it prompts the question: why were they working on the UPS at such a busy time (see below)?

Staff are escorted

I’m told that any contractor would have been escorted at all times by an IT staff member.

“That was always the rule”. Even if that contractor was from the company managing the facility. They wouldn’t even be allowed into the data centre without a detailed description of the job they were doing.

For obvious reasons, access to the centre is strictly controlled. “Maybe one in 10 IT staff have a pass that can get them in”, one former worker told me. And it’s even more restricted to get into the room housing the actual computer hardware.

We don’t know if this hapless engineer was being escorted and if so, by whom.

It seems unlikely that a lone engineer would take-on this complex “off and on” process on their own, without an expert stopping them in their tracks.

I’m told, “alarms would have been going off all over the place. It would have been obvious who was the culprit, he wouldn’t/shouldn’t have been allowed to do anything else”.

Freeze periods

BA would never carry out IT changes during busy periods, I’m told.

These are called “freeze periods”, normally starting a few days before a big holiday and ending a few days after.

This computer catastrophe happened on a bank holiday weekend over half term, a classic “freeze period”.

It can happen

I’ve been told about a builder once hitting the red button with a ladder, and a manager hitting it by mistake and never living it down.

But these incidents all happened decades ago, in the 70s and 80s, when the buttons weren’t covered with protective boxes etc. I’ve not heard of any recent incidents.

The biggest question of them all

When everything went pear-shaped, why didn’t the British Airways’ back-up system take over?

I understand that there is another building called Cranebank, less than a kilometre from the building that went wrong, full of identical systems that can be fired up in an emergency.

It’s like having Peter Shilton standing right behind the goal, ready to step in if Ray Clemence gets injured (I know I’m showing my age a bit. Ask your parents if you’ve never heard of them).

Theoretically, even someone mistakenly shutting off the power and switching it back on incorrectly shouldn’t bring the whole global system down.

The rumour mill

There are rumours doing the rounds at BA that it was sabotage by a disgruntled employee.

But no one I spoke to thought that was likely. A spokesperson for BA also reiterated there was no evidence to suggest it was sabotage.

I have also heard that the air conditioning was being fixed at the time, so the diesel back-up generator was switched off.

There’s no evidence for any of this, but if you leave gaps in your explanation, people will fill them in.

The investigation

Willie Walsh says that they’ve asked an independent company to investigate what happened and that they will make those findings public. There’s no timescale on when that report will be ready.

BA delays: Insurers clash with airline over expenses

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Insurers have clashed with British Airways over covering the cost of expenses incurred by passengers caught up in last weekend’s travel chaos.

The BA website suggests that customers should initially make a claim on their travel insurance for expenses such as meals during the delays.

But the Association of British Insurers (ABI) and a consumer rights expert say responsibility is with the airline.

BA said it would update the language, but its website has yet to change.

Saturday’s IT fiasco grounded hundreds of flights and disrupted the travel plans of tens of thousands of passengers around the world.

Passengers travelling in the EU are entitled to compensation, but insurers are angry with the airline for claims over non-flight expenses such as hotels, meals and phone calls.

BA’s website says: “You should make a claim with your travel insurer in the first instance. If you have expenses that either you were not successful in claiming or which are not covered by your policy, you may claim for only these expenses in the form below.”

However, the ABI contacted the airline earlier in the week pointing out that the initial claim should be to the airline, and only if that was unsuccessful would some policies pay out for these costs. A payout from the airline means passengers are more likely to get the full refund, rather than be liable for an insurer’s excess.

“No-one wants these passengers pushed from pillar to post,” said Malcolm Tarling, of the ABI.

This position has been backed by consumer rights campaigner Helen Dewdney.

“Looking at the claim for expenses online, once you start the online process, it suggests that you should claim from your travel insurance first. For EU flights, this is in breach of EU law – the airline must pay for reasonable expenses, For all flights, BA even says this as part of its terms and conditions,” she said.

“It is the airline’s responsibility to inform people of their rights and it does not appear to me that BA has done nearly enough.”

In an interview on Thursday, Willie Walsh, the head of British Airways’ owner IAG, said: “Clearly we will do everything we can to make up [for] the disruption they suffered.”

The airline said: “We have been encouraging customers that were affected by the weekend’s events to submit claims for their expenses, including those beyond flights, so that we can compensate them.

“We have created a dedicated page on providing customers with additional information on how to make a claim. We will be updating the wording on the claims page to ensure our customers have clear information.”

It has now also added a link on its homepage for compensation advice.

Questions still remain over exactly how the IT fiasco occurred. The airline said on Wednesday that a loss of power to a UK data centre was “compounded” by a power surge that took out its IT systems.

An email leaked to the Press Association suggested that a contractor doing maintenance work inadvertently switched off the power supply, although this has not been confirmed.

The email said: “This resulted in the total immediate loss of power to the facility, bypassing the backup generators and batteries… After a few minutes of this shutdown, it was turned back on in an unplanned and uncontrolled fashion, which created physical damage to the systems and significantly exacerbated the problem.”

British Airways: Chaos continues at Heathrow

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More than a third of British Airways flights from Heathrow were cancelled as thousands of passengers faced a second day of disruption.

The airline was hit by a worldwide computer system power failure on Saturday, causing cancellations and delays for thousands of passengers.

All long-haul services left from Heathrow, but with delays, BA said.

The airline has urged people to check the status of flights before travelling to the airport.

The airline apologised to customers for the issue, which is thought to have been caused by a problem with the IT system’s power supply.

In a statement released on Sunday, chief executive Alex Cruz said: “I know this has been a horrible time for customers. We’re not there yet, but we are doing our very best to sort things out for you.”

The BBC’s Phillip Norton, who has been stranded at Rome airport since Saturday, has been told he won’t be able to fly back to London until Tuesday.

The airline is liable to reimburse thousands of passengers for refreshments and hotel costs.

Customers displaced by flight cancellations can claim up to £200 a day for a room (based on two people sharing), £50 for transport between the hotel and airport, and £25 a day per adult for meals and refreshments.

One traveller from Seattle said she had spent the evening sleeping on the floor of a hotel conference room.

Ashley Tracey, who was trying to get to Mumbai for her friend’s wedding, said she had been queuing to rebook her flight for six hours.

She said: “There’s no information I can’t seem to get through online, I don’t live here so I don’t have a phone that works here.”

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