Author Mark Richards

The problems of British Airways over the weekend were well documented. What are your rights if you are stranded by an airline? And more worryingly, could BA’s problems be a sign of things to come?

So how did you spend the bank holiday weekend? A trip to the seaside with the children behaving perfectly in the back of the car? Quality time with your partner, painting the spare room? Or stuck at Heathrow thanks to British Airways computer crash, finding out the no news was definitely not good news.

We apologise for the current IT systems outage. We are working to resolve the problem as quickly as possible.

For thousands of people around the world BA’s supposedly-reassuring tweet was missing an ‘R’ in the word ‘outage…’

The ‘IT systems outage’ – more accurately described as a global IT systems meltdown – struck BA on Saturday, forcing the airline to cancel all flights from Heathrow and Gatwick. And the problems went even deeper, with many flights unable to depart from other airports around the world.

The crash in the computer system left the airline unable to allow passengers to board flights, and also affected the company’s call centre and website. British Airways said there was no evidence that their system had been subject to a malicious attack, but that they were ‘investigating.’

Not to worry though: British Airways assured passengers that while there may be some disruption to long haul flights, they were ‘seeking to restore their services from tomorrow [Sunday].’

The problems continue…

Sadly, Sunday came and went and things were still not back to normal, with passengers continuing to report massive queues at Heathrow.

Monday’s reporting was rather less charitable: ‘BA prepares for the third day of chaos’ screamed the headlines. The computer problems still had not been fixed and attention had now turned to the chief executive, Alex Cruz, who said he had no intention of resigning over the chaos.

Although the situation had improved slightly by Monday lunchtime, many short haul flights were still affected, with BA warning of ‘congestion’ at Heathrow. With long-haul flights also still affected, BA was starting to brace itself for massive compensation payouts and a knock-on loss of revenue. A similar IT failure at US airline Delta last year cost the company $150m in lost revenue.

Unsurprisingly, when the stock market re-opened on Tuesday shares in BA’s parent company IAG were down sharply, falling by as much as 4% at one point.

What are your rights if you are stranded?

By Monday it was clear that British Airways would be faced with paying millions of pounds in compensation. There are EU regulations governing cancelled flights which were due to leave from EU airports, with the amount of money reimbursed depending on the length of the delay and the length of the flight – short, medium or long haul.

BA wheeled out a ‘spokesman’ to say that they would honour their obligations, but it is important to note that compensation is not automatic – customers will need to write a complaint letter to the airline. If writing is not your strong point, consumer body Which? has some standard complaint letters on its website.

To be eligible for compensation a short-haul flight must be delayed by two hours, medium by three hours and long haul by four hours. BA seems to have comfortably exceeded those targets…

It is not just the flights, however: if passengers are delayed overnight then the airline responsible must provide hotel accommodation and transfers between the airport and the hotel.

A travel expert’s view

Consumer expert Frank Brehany, MD of HolidayTravelWatch, said customers could claim up to £200 for a room (based on two people sharing) and up to £50 for transfers and £25 per day for meals and refreshments. ‘Keep your receipts’ was his advice – with a reminder that anyone stranded in a ‘high-value city’ such as London might reasonably expect to claim more.

The lawyers rub their hands…

Lawyers involved in British Airways outage

The EU regulations do not apply if the delays have been caused by factors outside an airline’s control – such as a strike – but in 2014 two UK Supreme Court judgements stated that airlines were liable when the delay was caused by a technical fault, which appears to have been the case here. But given the recent spate of malware attacks, which we wrote about recently, that is an interesting point to consider. Would long flight delays caused by hacking be defined as a ‘technical fault?’ Or would the airline claim it was ‘a factor outside our control?’ The lawyers could be arguing for a long time while customers waited for compensation – and it is another reason for checking your travel insurance carefully.

Widespread criticism of British Airways

In August last year The Economist – in a piece called To Fly, To Scrooge – said that

“little by little, BA is chipping away at its good name.”

This latest episode can only enhance that view, and the GMB union was quick to fan the flames, criticising BA for outsourcing IT to India last year, saying the problems could all have been avoided. GMB national officer Mick Rix said,

“BA made hundreds of dedicated and loyal staff redundant and outsourced the work to India. Many viewed the company’s actions as just plain greedy.”

Not surprising, BA boss Alex Cruz refused to blame outsourcing – and repeated his determination not to resign.

But could British Airways problems just be the shape of things to come?

Increasingly, we are relying on technology, not people: in the world of travel, manned air traffic control towers could soon be made obsolete by technological advances allowing arrivals and departures to be monitored remotely using high-definition video.

That is the plan at London City Airport, where a control tower is being built – but it will be ‘manned’ by HD cameras, not people. It is intended to be the first major hub in the world to manage air traffic remotely: from 2019 those cameras will be linked to the National Air Traffic System (Nats) in Swanwick, Hampshire – which is 80 miles away. The airport believes this will allow staff to monitor the aircraft more accurately than before. No more reaching for the binoculars – instead air traffic controllers can use the technology to zoom in on any potential problems. But supposing there is a power ‘outage’ in rural Hampshire?

We all know that people have their disadvantages. They get sick, they want holidays and most irritatingly of all they want paying. But they are not liable to a systems outage or a power cut. They cannot – yet – be hacked: and in the final analysis, they can pick up the binoculars and look. Call me old fashioned, but I find an airport control tower manned by people strangely reassuring…