British Airways’ explanations for IT failures far from convincing

Plus: ‘Fred the Shred’ to avoid court appearance over RBS stewardship

Passengers queuing at Heathrow Airport after British Airways cancelled all flights from Gatwick and Heathrow. Photograph: Emily Wilson/PA

Passengers queuing at Heathrow Airport after British Airways cancelled all flights from Gatwick and Heathrow. Photograph: Emily Wilson/PA

 

So now we know: the computer crash suffered by British Airways was caused by an engineer pulling out a plug. Or, to be more precise, putting the plug back in.

That, at least, is the explanation put forward by Willie Walsh, head of BA’s owner, International Airlines Group. Walsh said on Monday that the unnamed technician had switched off power to BA’s data centre and then reconnected it, causing the “power surge” that had so perplexed observers of the chaotic meltdown last month.

Speaking from the annual air travel industry conference in Cancun, Mexico, Walsh told reporters the person responsible was “authorised to be in the room, but wasn’t authorised to do what he did”.

The IAG boss didn’t say whether the technician is still employed but that seems somewhat unlikely, given that his action left 75,000 passengers stranded over one of the busiest travel weekends of the year.

It also leaves BA with a bill approaching £150 million, according to latest estimates, and an incalculable hit to its reputation and future bookings.

As we all know from the advice so frequently given by IT departments, turning something off, then on again, usually does the trick, although not in this instance – if BA is to be believed.

Admitting that human error was behind the catastrophic systems failure is certainly an embarrassment for Britain’s flagship carrier – but not quite as embarrassing as having to admit that cost-cutting was the cause, as some have claimed.

Denying once again that job cuts were behind the computer mayhem, Walsh said it was the “uncontrolled and uncommanded fashion” in which the power was restored that did the damage. “You could cause a mistake to disconnect the power; it’s difficult for me to understand how you can mistakenly reconnect the power,” he said.

Had power been restored in a controlled way, the shutdown would have lasted only a couple of hours, according to the IAG boss, and cancellations would have been avoided.

Not everyone is convinced by this latest explanation. The unions maintain that the outsourcing of hundreds of IT jobs to India last year is at the root of the problem.

And they are not impressed by the group’s latest attempt at communicating with passengers, staff and shareholders and have criticising IAG for what they called “selective dribbling out” of information.

“The travelling public, BA employees and IAG investors deserve a clear explanation of what went on and why,” said Mick Rix of the union GMB.

That should come, in time. Walsh has confirmed there will be an independent inquiry into the debacle. He gave no further details of the investigation, such as who would carry it out or the proposed time frame, but said it would be “peer-reviewed” and that he would be “happy to disclose details”.

Figures just released by IAG showed just how hard BA’s schedule was hit, with almost 60 per cent of flights scrapped by BA on the Saturday of the meltdown and more than one in five cancelled the following day, 672 in total.

Fred off the hook

Put the popcorn back; it won’t be needed. Formal confirmation is expected on Wednesday morning that Fred Goodwin, Britain’s most reviled banker, is finally off the hook for his much-anticipated high court appearance.

The former Royal Bank of Scotland boss had initially been due to take the stand on Thursday in the long-running legal battle launched by disgruntled shareholders over the bank’s £12 billion rights issue.

RBS launched its cash call in 2008, but six months later had to be bailed out by taxpayers, with shareholders suffering huge losses. In the legal action – one of many launched by shareholders – investors said they had been misled about the bank’s true financial position.

Other investors had already settled with RBS, but one group, consisting of 9,000 shareholders and some institutional investors, had been holding out for a better deal.

For some, it wasn’t about the money, even though they have managed to squeeze around 82 pence a share out of RBS – double the figure accepted by other shareholders.

The real diehards were determined to put “Fred the Shred” on the stand and make him account for his actions during the financial crisis. Goodwin has not been seen in public since he was roasted by MPs at Westminster in 2009, and the case would have been explosive.

Alas, they have failed to find backers to fund their legal costs and, with the majority of shareholders voting to accept the deal, the case has been abandoned. If only the diehards could have organised their own cash call to pay the legal bills.

  • Fiona Walsh is business editor of theguardian.com
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