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Construction delays blamed for Heathrow T5 fiasco

British Airways chief executive Willie Walsh yesterday told a committee of MPs that construction delays were partly responsible for the chaos at the opening of Heathrow's £4.3bn Terminal 5.

Under questioning by the Transport Select Committee of MPs, sitting for the first time since the passing of chairman Gwyneth Dunwoody, Walsh said that, "Fours days training [for staff moving to T5] was not sufficient. This was mostly because the building was not complete, so the training took place in a different building [to the completed terminal]."

"It is clear we made some mistakes and in particular had compromised on the testing regime as a consequence of delays in the building of the terminal, and this did impact on T5 opening," he said. Lifts, piers and the baggage system were singled-out as particularly problematic.

Walsh also gave a very different impression of the decisions to open T5, when more than 500 flights were cancelled over three chaotic days than those provided by BAA.

BAA chief executive Colin Matthews told the committee that he was unaware of discussions with British Airways (BA), on the scaling-back or postponing the opening of opening T5, and was, "not aware of problems before the terminal opened."

Committee members accused Matthews of complacency. "If BAA problems could impact on the smooth running of T5 opening, which must be the most significant event in BAA's recent history, to not have been aware if discussions took place is extraordinary, isn't it?" asked committee member Clive Efford.

Matthews replied that, "Events conspired against us, and in T5 this had a cumulative effect," and was reluctant to lay blame with either operator BAA, or airline BA.

Matthews was simply unable to answer several questions, claiming he had been "too busy" to prepare sufficiently for the committee hearing. BAA's chairman Sir Nigel Rudd promised to launch a review into the opening of Terminal 5 within the next two months.

Labour committee member Graham Stringer MP told Matthews, "We have a history in this country of large projects being embarrassing. Your answers are not in the real world."

Matthews claimed that the opening was a success, and compared the baggage-handling system with other major airport openings. He said the problems at Denver airport had been so bad, their system had been abandoned, and the system in Hong Kong took two years to work properly. "In T5 it took 3 days," said Matthews.

Walsh later told MPs that BA had indeed been in talks with BAA over scaling-back and postponing the opening of T5. "We were in discussions for both, and we did scale-down the original plan - all operations were originally to move in one go. Following a review of the risk, we decided to have 4 moves."

Walsh said BA's final move to T5 would not be until January or February 2009.

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