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BA’s IT: will the Transport Select Committee ask the tough questions?

David Bicknell Published 01 June 2017

When Parliament resumes after the election, will the effect of BA’s IT chaos on the public be remembered and investigated by MPs – or simply forgotten?

 

There are times when Parliament must be seen to be doing the right thing. And that particularly applies to the investigations carried out by its select committees.

There is a House of Commons select committee for each government department, typically examining three aspects: its spending, policies and administration. You would hope that the investigations carried out would also reflect the impact on the public of actions taken by private providers and public companies.

Take the Transport Committee, which is charged by the House of Commons with scrutiny of the Department for Transport. Its formal remit is to examine the expenditure, administration and policy of the Department of Transport and its associated public bodies.

Over the bank holiday weekend, the Transport Committee members in the last Parliament - several of whom are likely to be re-elected to the committee after the General Election - will surely have seen the chaos caused at Heathrow and Gatwick Airports caused by BA's extensively reported IT problems that stranded 75,000 passengers over one of the busiest holiday weekends of the year. Indeed some of them may have been personally affected. In fact, one hopes that was the case.

You'd also hope that by the time a new committee and chair is elected - in the last Parliament it was Labour MP Louise Ellman - the impact on innocent passengers caused by BA's IT woes has not been forgotten. Certainly those affected - who missed family holidays, weddings, honeymoons etc - will not forget them. Nor will BA's accountants and reputation managers. It has been predicted that BA's compensation bill for the fiasco could top £100m.

The airline has blamed its problems on the loss of electrical power at its main datacentre, not far from Heathrow. BA said there was an "immediate loss of power" from its uninterruptible power supply, or "UPS". When power returned, a surge apparently physically damaged BA's IT servers, which subsequently caused the loss of customer, baggage, flight and crew information and required the airline to physically replace IT infrastructure that had been damaged.

The problem is: will anyone ever truly know what caused the IT issues that created such chaos? And is it really in BA's interests or the wider International Airlines Group (IAG) which BA is part of, to fully explain what went wrong? The BBC has reported that there is talk of the BA board pushing for a third party inquiry into exactly what happened, to make sure best practice was followed. Let's see how long it takes to get that off the ground and whether, once the news agenda has moved on, it actually happens.

BA's IT staff had to pull out all of the stops to get the organisation's IT operations fully up and running. Indeed, by Bank Holiday Monday, BA was promising it would run a full schedule at Gatwick while intending to operate a full long-haul schedule from Heathrow.

By Wednesday indeed, the BA news agenda had quickly moved on, with IAG launching its new trans-Atlantic budget airline, Level, with its first flight from Barcelona to Los Angeles on Thursday. IAG said it had sold 100,000 tickets in the first month since they had been on sale.

There have been several complaints that BA's cost-cutting to take on competition from budget airlines is to blame for the IT problems, claims which BA has denied. BA's chief executive Alex Cruz has also insisted the outsourcing of jobs was not to blame for the power failure. So where does the truth lie?

Which brings us back to the Transport Select Committee. When normal Parliamentary business has resumed post-election and the newly created transport committee sits down for its first planning meeting, you'd hope that it considers the BA chaos and invites the airline's management to explain, in public session before the committee, how the once self-styled 'world's favourite airline' can see its IT systems go so completely wrong. This should include what lessons it has learned and the steps it has taken to ensure that the public will not be so similarly inconvenienced in future. It's a call also made by my old Campaign4Change colleague Tony Collins on his blog.

The committee undoubtedly owes it to the 75,000, whose holiday weekends and family plans and relationships were ruined, to ask the tough questions and get to the bottom of how a company of BA's size and reputation could get its IT so wrong.

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