How an online error caused a weekend of chaos for British Airways and thousands of customers

No-one from British Airways turned up at Hounslow Heath this morning to celebrate the airline’s centenary. 

BA is marking 100 years since a single-engined aircraft, a De Havilland DH4A, flew from the Middlesex airport to Paris on 25 August 1919.

At the controls was E H “Bill” Lawford of Air Transport and Travel, one of the “predecessor airlines” for British Airways.

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On board, says the airline, were “one passenger, a consignment of leather, several brace of grouse and some jars of Devonshire cream” (the cargo, not the inflight catering).

But BA’s attention has been diverted away from this west London heathland by one of the worst weekends in its 21st-century history.

After the British Airline Pilots’ Association (Balpa) called three days of strikes on Friday, the airline told tens of thousand of passengers that their flights were cancelled – only to admit many of the messages were sent in error.

The problem arose because British Airways had already planned its main wave of cancellations on whatever dates the pilots chose.

The flights to be grounded included European departures to “holiday” destinations such as Mallorca and Zakinthos, as well as some long-haul departures on which the airline has multiple frequencies.

But in the course of pressing the button to send out the tens of thousands of emails, an error with the date range meant that many of the recipients were wrongly told their flight wa grounded.

To compound the problem, British Airways told passengers: “If you have a flight booked with us on those dates, it is likely that you will not be able to travel.”

In fact, it is very likely that many of the passenger will be able to travel, because BA is obliged to book seat on any available airline if it cannot provide a flight itself on the original day of departure.

Since British Airways mentioned only the option to claim a full refund or rebook on another BA flights, many passengers understandably took matters into their own hands and rebooked, often at high fares, on other airlines.

Andrew Gilruth tweeted: “@British_Airways flights to our brother’s wedding are cancelled. Following your email we request refunds and pay elsewhere at vast cost. You then email to say it’s an error. Can’t re-book online. Phones unanswered. Can’t sort without your help.”

A spokesperson for British Airways said: “We are sorry for any confusion and inconvenience this has caused. We would encourage anyone who has incurred any expenses as a direct result to get in touch, and we will deal with each case on an individual basis.”

After representations from The Independent about BA’s responsibility for finding alternative flights for passengers, British Airways updated its online information to add: “We are committed to offering as many customers as possible the option to rebook on other airlines.”

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