Page last updated at 17:44 GMT, Friday, 28 March 2008

Other airports' rocky starts

Heathrow's T5
T5 passengers have suffered two days of cancellations and delays
Passengers caught up in the chaos that blighted the opening of Heathrow's 4.3bn Terminal 5 will take little comfort from the fact that they are not the first to suffer as a result of teething problems at an airport opening.

Denver, Bangkok, Hong Kong and Kuala Lumpur all experienced well-publicised glitches at their launches.

Perhaps the biggest problems were encountered at America's Denver International Airport, which not only opened a year late in 1995 because of technical faults with the baggage system, its first day was then marred by problems with bay allocation and luggage handling, which led to long queues and lost bags.

A number of Asian airports also had rocky starts.

Hong Kong airport, Denver airport and Kuala Lumpur airport, that are now regarded as very good airports, were all absolutely disastrous on their days of opening
Jamie Bowden
Aviation expert

Most recently, in March this year, Bangkok's new 2bn Suvarnabhumi Airport - opened in September - was forced to divert some flights to the decommissioned old one because of cracks on the runway and problems with aerobridges.

Malaysia's launch of Kuala Lumpur International Airport in 1998 was hit by a computer failure which delayed flights, caused luggage chaos and left hundreds stranded.

And the opening of Hong Kong's 12bn airport at Chek Lap Kok the same year was also dogged by disaster. Computer problems delayed flights and baggage systems and left departures and arrivals in disarray.

The cargo handling system also broke down, causing severe disruption to local businesses reliant on the import and export of goods.


Jamie Bowden, an aviation analyst who used to be a customer services manager at British Airways, said a bad launch day did not necessarily mean an airport could not recover its reputation.

"Hong Kong airport, Denver airport and Kuala Lumpur airport, that are now regarded as very good airports, were all absolutely disastrous on their days of opening and they all had problems with their baggage systems," he told Radio 4's Today programme.

Suvarnabhumi Airport, Bangkok
The runway at Bangkok's new 2bn Suvarnabhumi Airport cracked

"Now, Denver airport took almost a year to fix - British Airways are certainly hoping that that's not going to happen here."

Norman Shanks, an aviation security expert who has worked for Heathrow, airport operator BAA and was also involved with the launch of Hong Kong International Airport, said a variety of glitches could occur when an airport opened its doors to passengers.

"Denver, for example, was a technical problem. The bags were being ejected at speed from a very high-speed baggage handling system," he told the BBC's World at One.

"Hong Kong was principally a staffing problem where the staff moved from Kai Tak one day to the new airport the next day and thought they were going to be operating exactly the same system.

"But, despite being trained, they were unfamiliar with the new set-up, so pushed the wrong buttons basically."

Athens troubles

What became clear from these experiences, he said, was that workers needed time to get to know their new working environment.

"The lessons we learned were that you needed to spend time on staff familiarisation - not just on their particular job, but how to get from A to B, getting from the staff car park to their place of work."

Simon Calder, the Independent's travel editor, added Athens to the list of difficult starts after observing problems there four years ago.

It [T5] would now be topping the premiere league because of the abysmal management of expectations - over promising wildly, while under delivering dismally
Simon Calder
Travel writer

"In the run up to the 2004 Olympics, Greece was keen to show to the world it would have the games ready on time. On the opening of what is actually an outstanding airport, it was a massive cock-up.

"I was there on the opening day. It was fine at first, but it soon became clear it was going extremely badly. There were problems with the national carrier, Olympic, which was giving out boarding passes with the gate numbers for the old airport."

So, where does T5 rank in the list of disastrous beginnings?

"Things are going to go wrong when you open an airport. But what is breathtaking is the complacency in advance of this," said Mr Calder.

"It would now be topping the premiere league because of the abysmal management of expectations - over-promising wildly, while under-delivering dismally.

"They had six months to test this to destruction. What have they been doing? Who couldn't get the car park ready? It is a national disgrace."

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