Head of BA parent blames human error for bank holiday shutdown

The head of British Airways’s parent company has insisted that human error, rather than overly aggressive cost-cutting, was the cause of the computer systems shutdown that left 75,000 BA passengers stranded on a holiday weekend and caused severe damage to the reputation of the UK’s flagship carrier.

Willie Walsh, chief executive of International Airlines Group, said an engineer had inadvertently switched off the power supply to one of the company data centres and it was then turned back on again in an uncontrolled fashion. An independent investigation would be carried out, he said.

“It’s very clear to me that you can make a mistake in disconnecting the power,” he said at transport conference in Mexico, according to press accounts of his appearance. “It’s difficult for me to understand how to make a mistake in reconnecting the power.”

The electrical engineer is part of a maintenance team that works at Boadicea House, the Heathrow data centre hit by the power outage on Saturday, May 29, according to two people briefed on the situation. The facility has since 2013 been managed by CBRE Global Works Solutions, the US property services company.

CBRE said in a statement last week that it supported BA’s investigation into the cause of the power outage. “We are the manager of the facility for our client BA and fully support its investigation. No determination has been made yet regarding the cause of this incident,” the statement said. They declined to comment further.

An email sent by Bill Francis, IAG’s IT chief, last week confirmed that the shut-down had not been caused by IT failure or software issues. His email revealed that an investigation so far had found that an uninterruptible power supply to a core data centre at Heathrow was over-ridden on Saturday morning.

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Mr Walsh confirmed the main details of the leaked email. Had the power not been turned on again in an uncontrolled manner, he said, the shutdown “was a problem that we could have overcome probably in a couple of hours; I don’t think it would have led to any cancellations”.

The weekend meltdown in May infuriated passengers and raised new questions about whether the aggressive cost cutting at the airline under Mr Walsh and BA chief executive, former low-cost airline executive Alex Cruz, exacerbated the crisis.

BA’s computer systems had been outsourced to a contractor in India and labour unions initially blamed the move as a cause of the breakdown, accusations that turned the focus on Mr Walsh, who is known as “Slasher Walsh” for his cost-cutting ways.

Mr Walsh disputed those claims, insisting the cost-cutting drive — which has seen BA start charging for meals on short-haul flights as well as the outsourcing of IT — had not created the conditions for the shutdown. “In many cases I don’t believe there is any correlation . . . But without question if we had not embarked on an efficiency improvement programme we wouldn’t be in business today,” he said.

He added the results of the internal investigation would be fully disclosed. “I’m hoping that people will be able to learn from the experience that we have had, and we’ll all be better as a result,” he said.

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The IAG boss was speaking in Cancún, Mexico, where the world’s airlines were gathered for the annual meeting of their trade body, the International Air Transport Association.

Mr Walsh said BA’s reputation had been sorely damaged and admitted there had been mistakes in dealing with the public in the chaotic days that followed: “I wouldn’t suggest for one minute we got communications right at BA — we didn’t.”