Manchester Airport fails to learn lessons

Manchester Airport Fails to learn lessonsQueues, abandoned baggage and headline reports this weekend have shown that, following incidents in 2018, 2019 and 2022, Manchester Airport appears to have failed to learn lessons from previous power cuts and delays.

Yesterday, chaos reigned after there ‘had been a “fault” with a cable on the airport’s site, which sent a surge of power across the electrical network.’  It has been reported that, whilst generators did restore power relatively quickly, a power surge impacted two systems that were not designed to be turned off, one for communications with the UK Border Force and one for the baggage systems.  Really???

This raises at least two questions.  Firstly, had the Business Impact Analysis (BIA) identified how very critical these two systems are to the operation of the airport, the potential impact of the loss of either one of these systems, and the need to (a) ensure that the systems maintain full availability and (b) that effective and rehearsed plans are in place to respond if the unthinkable does happen.  High availability systems do cost more to implement and maintain, but having identified the criticality of these systems through a BIA, a simple cost-benefit analysis would identify the benefits of ensuring that the systems would not be lost due to a power cut.  Particularly given that the airport has a history of power cuts

Secondly, it seems curious that two such critical systems did not seem to be protected from such power surges.  Uninterruptible Power Supplies (UPS) are normally installed to provide back-up power.  They tend not to have sufficient power for along period but will be used to cross the gap before generator power kicks in, or to enable a controlled power down of the system./  the added benefit is that a UPS  is ‘used to protect hardware such as computers, data centers, telecommunication equipment or other electrical equipment where an unexpected power disruption could cause injuries, fatalities, serious business disruption or data loss.”  It is a fundamental part of the set-up of any data centre, and requires maintenance, such as batteries, to ensure operation at the point that it is needed.

It is also of note that, despite the criticality of the two systems, there appeared to be considerable delays to recovering the systems to a point that they could be used.  It appears that whatever recovery procedures were not in place have not been effective in meeting the requirements.

It appears that the first social media post was at 6.30, advising passengers due to fly from Terminals 1 or 2 to contact airlines for information before coming to the airport.  This was updated by 7.45am, then advising passengers not come to the airport.  As an occasional traveller from the airport, I know that the bulk of the flights leave between 6 and 8 in the morning, largely discount airlines,  and that Terminal 1 is normally frenetic from around 5 in the morning.  Thus, thus many of those early-travelling passengers would already be at the airport.

Advising people to contact airlines is not particularly helpful.  Easyjet are ‘here to help from 8am – 8pm’, Ryanair are notoriously difficult to contact (but advise 9-6 on Sundays), and certainly my local travel agent would not be open at that time on a Sunday morning.  It is surprising that, in these times of speedy communications, messaging systems and information panels on motorways, that the airports do not appear to have found a way of liaising with passengers in a more timely fashion.  The power cut happened at 1.30 in the morning, but it appears that the airport was unable to communicate with the travelling public until their first social media post at 6.30, and therefore were not able to prevent an airport full of people when still trying to recover computer systems.

Having said all this it could, of course, be that the response timelines were in line with the BIA, and that Manchester Airport Group have decided that a 24 hour disruption is acceptable and that the costs to make computer systems more resilient would exceed the losses from a number of flight cancellations over a 24 hour period.  Certainly the retail revenue could be protected given the number of people trapped in the airport for a period of time.  And when all is said and done, folk will still fly from Manchester Airport given its location and the large number of airlines that will continue to use the airport.

Lessons Learned or Lessons Identified?

I have been in the Business Continuity profession for a number of years and it is refreshing that the language has now veered away from ‘lessons learned’ to lessons identified’ following exercises or incidents.  Given Manchester Airport  has had previous power cuts and has equally experienced huge problems with looking after their passengers and has, more than one, been identified as the worst airport in the UK, it is clear that lessons have not been learned, and I query whether lessons have actually been identified and root causes thoroughly investigated.

I also state that the opinions given above are my own, and I look forward to Manchester Airport sharing any details of any post-incident reviews and learning.

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