My email inbox was very busy in the months – weeks especially – leading up to the opening of Heathrow’s Terminal 5. (Actually, the earliest mention in my inbox goes back to December 2005. But anyway..)
As far back as July 2007, BA emailed with the invite:
On behalf of British Airways and BAA I would like to invite you to a media event on 12 July 2007, exploring how the IT systems at Heathrow Airports new Terminal 5 will deliver a new experience in air travel.
On February 5 2008 came another:
Final testing for BA’s Terminal 5 IP communications network is now complete and the network is ready to ‘go live’ in March. Communications Integrator Affiniti discusses exactly what went into the project and what passengers can expect when they go through T5.
On February 14:
You are invited to see the technology that is behind the exciting new Heathrow Terminal 5. In a matter of weeks British Airways will move into its new home at London Heathrow’s Terminal 5.
The site is largely complete and testing of the UK’s largest freestanding building, which at its peak was Europe’s largest building site, is well underway.
I am therefore delighted to invite you to spend the day experiencing first hand the £4.3bn wonder that is Terminal 5 and to experience the technology that supports this marvel.
On 21 February came a more urgent email, because I hadn’t replied in the positive:
Paul Coby, British Airways CIO will be hosting the event alongside BAA both of whom will give presentations on Terminal 5, its development, the creation of a technical infrastructure and how this will deliver a 21st century experience to our passengers.
This will be followed by lunch and the opportunity to speak with key individuals from both BA and BAA that have worked on T5.
Now, if I was a transport correspondent, or a news writer, this would have been a must-go, I accept. So this isn’t any criticism of the people who did go along to get briefings about the marvel, which we now hear about first-hand from Anthony Horowitz in the Guardian:
As the jet-lagged crowd slumped on the floor in the vast baggage claim area (the genius of the Richard Rogers Partnership did not extend to a single chair or bench), BAA officials were keen to impress on us that they had done their job. The lights were on. The conveyor belts were turning. BA officials meanwhile blamed the BAA computer systems. And all the time, every 10 minutes, an Essex voice was cheerily announcing in a loop designed to send even a strong man insane: “British Airways would like to apologise for the delay to baggage collection. British Airways are doing their best to address the situation.”
Related, from Andrew Anthony’s TV review in today’s Observer, about the Apprentice, but widely applicable:
We might no longer manufacture goods, but we know how to manufacture sales clones. And their chief accomplishment in the ever-expanding service industry has been to sell us the concept of no service. They don’t know about anything. That’s why they can turn their hand to everything.
All patter and no matter, the male team managed to flog their load at only a minuscule profit, an astonishing achievement in gastrophile Islington. But at least it gave them the opportunity to demonstrate their impressive grasp of two other great national talents: excuse-making and blame-shifting.
Which seemed very apposite to T5 and its huge cockup, caused by the failure of people interacting with technology.
So why didn’t I go? Three things. I’m mistrustful of transparent attempts to make me write nice things about stuff that hasn’t actually been tested in the heat of (commercial) battle. One’s work becomes an instant hostage to fortune; I wonder how many writers are now sharpening their knives over BA at their feeling at having been misled.
Secondly, BA hasn’t been particularly helpful in the past when I’ve wanted to get some information from it that it has not felt particularly willing to give out. (Details escape just now, but I recall hours spent phoning and being stonewalled.) That stuff cuts both ways.
Finally, though, and most important: I just couldn’t see that there was really a new, enticing technology story there which needed to be told. If it hadn’t been properly tested, how did we know what was going on? Without something like, say, blogs from people on the baggage handling side (the equivalent of blogs from testers of, say, Windows Vista) it’s just the word of the supremely confident people who were standing up there, here to sell us the concept of no service.
Now it’s open, we can see how it works. As you’re already aware: badly.