British Airways IT fiasco proves you are only as strong as your weakest link

29 May, 2017

From a terrorist cyber hack to a simple inadvertent removal of a plug from a socket, whatever caused the IT failure that left British Airways' fleet of aircraft grounded for most of the weekend is a lesson learned, not just for the airline, but for the industry as a whole, especially considering the important role technology provides in the day to day needs of the aviation system.

Worryingly, the world's leading specialist in air transport communications and IT solutions SITA notes that overall IT spend by airlines in 2014 and 2015 was just 2.8% and 2.7% of revenues, respectively, versus the 4% to 6% that is normally seen in other industry sector. This clearly suggests that airlines are underinvesting in IT and could be leaving themselves vulnerable to all sorts of problems.

This investment shortfall versus industry is especially a concern when you consider that European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) data shows that hackers have bombarded the aviation sector with over 1,000 attacks per month and cybercrime is forecasted to cost businesses over $2 trillion by 2019. And this is an industry that that will be embracing digitalisation more and more over the coming years.

In its 2016 Airline IT report SITA stated that airlines had predicted their IT spending would grow as a percentage of revenues to 3% and that confidence looks set to extend to 2017 with 52% of chief information officers predicting their operating spend and 57% expecting their capital spend, to increase in the current calendar year. This, says SITA, is considerably more positive than projections in previous surveys.

While BA's IT may have been out, its customers wasn't and angry passengers were quick to educate the world, and of course national media organisations, to the chaotic scenes at London's Heathrow Airport, the airline's main hub of operation. This also highlighted that despite tested processes on how to cope in a crisis, things may not always go by the book in practice.

Communications specialist Marc Cornelius, founder and managing director of London-based aviation, travel and transport agency 80:20 Communications says whatever the industry, there are some basic rules to crisis communications which need to be addressed in the following order:

  • communicate quickly and keep communicating - otherwise you leave a vacuum that third parties may be quick to fill with their own theories, accurate or otherwise;
  • clearly express your overriding concern for those who have been harmed or inconvenienced by what took place; and
  • find out what happened, fix it and explain what you'll do to ensure it can't happen again

With over 20 years' international PR experience gained at leading agencies and in-house, he acknowledges that while BA has naturally got a number of things right, there have also been some curious failings at the 'crisis comms 101' level that he suggests are likely to dog the business for several years. He believes that BA may have focussed too heavily on the third rule at the expense of the first two.

There is an understandable caution that affects major companies when a major financial liability is unfolding before them. Passenger compensation from this weekend's meltdown will certainly run to tens of millions of pounds and perhaps BA's instincts (or those of its legal team) were to remain silent until the problem was fully understood, so as not to unwittingly increase its legal exposure.

"This is the wrong response in a crisis of this type, as the reputational harm BA has suffered stands to drag on the company's performance just when it needs to appeal to customers more than ever," says Mr Cornelius.

BA is now apologised for the problems ("On behalf of everyone at BA, I want to apologise for the fact you've had to go through these very trying experiences," said CEO Alex Cruz in a video message), and admitted it still has work to do ("We are not there yet - but we are doing our very best to sort things out for you," said Alex Cruz in the same video).

It is easy to criticise from afar without full knowledge of BA's internal challenges this weekend. More information will likely be released in the coming days, while an independent investigation is surely on the cards to work out how and why the airline was crippled by the shutdown. What is clear though is like all teams, you are only as strong as your weakest link.