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BA calls in help to move T5 baggage mountain

British Airways drafted in extra staff on Sunday to shift 15 000 items of baggage built up since the disastrous opening of its showcase terminal at London’s Heathrow Airport.

With nearly 250 flights cancelled since Thursday’s opening of the $8,6-billion Terminal Five (T5) and more cancellations due in coming days, the airline could not say when matters would return to normal.

”We have got 400 extra staff in today volunteering to get the bags moved. There are still around 15 000 bags to move,” a spokesperson said. ”We are working around the clock to get them back to their owners.”

The launch of the terminal has proved a public relations disaster with potential major financial pain for BA, which had hoped the new building would answer criticism prompted by overcrowding at the world’s busiest international airport.

It has forced the postponement of an advertising campaign promoting the new terminal due to have been launched next week.

The problems have also triggered a fresh bout of soul-searching among Britons about their failure to deliver large infrastructure projects.

Transport Secretary Ruth Kelly said on Sunday she had held talks with the airline and airport operator BAA, owned by Spain’s Ferrovial, and was prepared to step in with unspecified help if it became necessary.

BA said it expected to operate the terminal at 87% capacity on Monday and Tuesday, a slight improvement from the 85% — equivalent to 37 cancellations — it said it was operating on Sunday.

”We have not been given information beyond Tuesday,” the spokesperson said.

But she added that everything depended on the operation of the terminal’s bar-coded baggage handling system. The breakdown of the system on Thursday and a series of other operational hitches triggered the chaos.

BA chief executive Willie Walsh has apologised for the disruption and admitted the move to the terminal was ”definitely not our finest hour”.

BA shares fell 3% on Friday to 240p, hit by the Heathrow chaos and jitters ahead of Sunday’s start of an ”open skies” deal to create greater competition on trans-Atlantic routes.

The airline faces a sizeable compensation bill for passengers delayed and forced to stay overnight in hotels. – Reuters

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