Customer care should be priority

There are lessons to be learned for Dubai in two events of the past few days – the chaos of the opening of the new British Airways Terminal 5 at London’s Heathrow airport, and from the Dubai World Cup at Nad Al Sheba.

Both have an essential message for businesses and the people who manage them – if you do not retain the respect and loyalty of your customers, you are in danger of losing them.

I will not dwell on the World Cup. Nad Al Sheba has specific problems to tackle in view of the huge construction work going on to get the racing metropolis of Al Meydan ready for opening in 2010. And the usual delights were there – beautifully dressed ladies, the best horses in the world, and an atmosphere I think is unique to horseracing.

But none of these compensated me for the 90-minute queue in hot sunshine to get into the International Village, nor the disappointments when I finally arrived there – too many people, not enough catering and badly organised viewing facilities. I left after 45 minutes to begin the long slog home without seeing a single racehorse in the flesh. If I were one of the thousands of people who flew in especially for the event I would have been very unimpressed. But there is always next year, and after that there is Al Meydan.

For British Airways, T5 was its very own Al Meydan. The Dubai airports authority, and Emirates airlines (which also sponsors the World Cup) must look at the scenes at London’s T5 in the light of the opening of Al Maktoum airport a few years from now. They must ensure the same problems are not repeated in the UAE when the world’s largest airport is due to open. I suggest they begin training staff now to avoid the disaster that has engulfed both BA and the Spanish-owned airports operator BAA.

In the planning stage for 15 years, T5 was supposed to be Britain’s state-of-the-art “gateway to the world”. As anyone who knows the Byzantine chaos that comprises Terminals 1, 2, 3 and 4 at Heathrow will confirm, it was a much-needed initiative. Certainly BA executives have been hanging on to the T5 “dream” for many years now as some kind of utopia that would solve all their problems.

BA passengers (the terminal was designed as a facility dedicated to one airline) were to be whisked to arrivals, departures or connections in the most trouble-free way possible. Innovative standards of hi-tech automation were meant to end the misery of luggage check-in (always the most time-consuming part of a flight) and ensure the smoothest transit possible for passengers.

Now, of course, we know all that was a charade. What worked perfectly well in the dummy runs and the media presentations leading up to the opening failed abysmally on the Big Day. I think it was the American general (later president) Eisenhower, who said that the best prepared military plans seldom survived the firing of the first bullet in battle, and that is exactly what happened at T5 – all BA’s plans collapsed as the first passengers began to arrive at the terminal.

By all accounts, it was inadequate “staff familiarisation” that was at the heart of the problem, but I feel there was a deeper malaise at work at Heathrow. Any modern business has its own contingency planning department – the layman would call it “Plan B” – working on what to do if Plan A failed. The fact there was no evidence of Plan B being put in operation at T5 is a severe indictment of BA’s management.

Having covered the airline in depth for years as a business journalist in Britain, I think I know it well enough to pass some judgment on its executive strengths and weaknesses. What has always bedeviled BA, under chief executives from Lord Marshall to Willie Walsh, the current incumbent, is the legacy of its days as a state-owned company.

BA employees, from cabin crew to baggage handlers, regarded themselves as some kind of elite civil service, the cream of the public sector. That mind-set made executive decision-making and implementation very difficult – there was always another entrenched power clique that had to be mollified, persuaded and cajoled before a new policy could be implemented. Result: a neutered, hesitant management, and executive chaos.

I suspect this is what happened in the run-up to T5. The new terminal was always going to be a tough proposition for executives to sell to the power cliques, who feared it would erode their privileges. In these circumstances, pre-opening “familiarisation” and training would have been grudgingly and half-heartedly undergone – it would have been a bit like telling a sulky young child to get on with his or her homework rather than watch TV.

The other executive failure that BA had made into an art form over the years is the “public relations disaster”. Whether it was “dirty tricks” conspiracies against its rival Virgin, the endless labour problems at Heathrow and elsewhere, or even just plain old bad British weather, you could guarantee the BA communications team would make it worse, and in much the same way each time.

The scenario became depressingly familiar: an initial failure to recognise that there was a problem gave way to a near-hysterical over-reaction; the chief executive was wheeled out to apologise (as Walsh was this time) and promised that heads would roll.

Sacrifices were required. Inevitably, it was the wrong managers who took the blame, and loyal executives who had given years of service and dedication in an effort to change the rock-hard culture at BA would find themselves out of a job – or worse, facing legal action for some imaginary misdemeanour.

That is no way to instill management confidence in a dynamic, challenging industry like aviation.

The senior team planning Al Maktoum airport should regard the T5 experience as a lesson in how not to run an airport. Training programmes, contingency planning and worst-case scenarios must be initiated and implemented now. And if the same visionary techniques can be put in place for the Dubai World Cup 2009, I for one would be very happy.