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Terminal 5 baggage chaos: engineers are not at fault

A couple of weeks ago I described Heathrow Terminal 5 as 'an impressive building, an impressive gateway to the nation and an impressive construction achievement'.

My view hasn't changed. Despite the opening week chaos it remains a first class piece of public infrastructure and something that the nation should be proud of.

In fact, I urge every civil engineer concerned about status and public standing to make noise in defence of BAA's new T5.

Yes, the scenes of angry passenger queues, baggage mountains and cancelled flights were a disgrace. Yes, the preparation ahead of this mammoth move should have been much, much better. And yes we need to learn lessons about the management of people - not least ahead of the 2012 Olympics.

But alongside the passenger disappointment it was a tragedy for all those people who worked hard to deliver this new facility. It was a tragedy for all those people looking forward to using it and a tragedy for all those waiting to continue Heathrow's rebirth.

Because let's be clear, this week's problems were not - despite authoritative nonsense in the national media - an infrastructure failure.
The problems were not caused by unfinished construction, poor quality, malfunction or poor design. The building was complete, commissioned and handed-over. There was no critical equipment missing, no non-functioning mechanicals and barely any software glitches. And it didn't leak.

To suggest that T5's problems represent another example of the UK construction industry's inability to deliver large scale infrastructure is plain nonsense.

Even British Airways boss Willie Walsh has pretty much accepted that the problems lie at his door rather than BAA's. And while the investigations into precisely what happened continue, it seems clear that problems were human rather than mechanical.

Put generically talk is of "people issues". Specifically baggage handlers - un-skilled, low-paid operatives working in a new environment, with new equipment and routines.

It is understandable that BAA is reluctant to start to cast blame. It must continue to help its partner BA out of its current mess because just one month away is "Switch Two" day when BA's trans-continental passengers move to T5.

This move represents a vital stage in BAA's £3.5bn programme to redevelop the airport and in short, unless BA moves wholesale to T5 there is risk BAA's programme will slip.

But as an industry we can make the point. So let's stop feeling sad and embarrassed about T5 and start feeling angry about the way that engineering has been blamed.

We can deliver infrastructure on time and to budget and for the sake of the UK economy it is vital we continue to do so.
- Antony Oliver is NCE's editor

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