Did a lack of IT investment cause the BA shutdown?

Over 75,000 British Airways customers suffered chaos as an IT shutdown resulted in cancelled flights and disrupted customer services over the bank holiday weekend.

Early reports suggested the power outage was down to human error, but that has been refuted by British Airways; the company said it was down to an “electrical power supply which was interrupted.” The cause of the original power outage is not yet publicly known, but the airline blamed an “uncontrolled return of power” for the shutdown that caused three days of disruption.

Following the shutdown, the power surge physically damaged the entire system and, in turn, shut it down. The damaged servers were hosted in the company’s datacentre. Rumours of a cyber-attack initially circulated, as people are still on high alert following the devastating WannaCry attack.

This power surge was confirmed as the issue by the Head of IT for IAG, the company that owns British Airways, who said this in an email: “This resulted in the total immediate loss of power to the facility, bypassing the backup generators and batteries … After a few minutes of this shutdown of power, it was turned back on in an unplanned and uncontrolled fashion, which created physical damage to the system, and significantly exacerbated the problem.”

The trade union GMB has criticised British Airways in the wake of this failure, accusing the airline company of being greedy as it cut “hundreds of dedicated and loyal” IT employees, choosing to contract the work to a company in India.

The company is facing huge compensation costs, which experts have predicted to total over £100 million. BA has committed to complying with compensation regulations, and has hired extra customer relations staff to process compensation payments.

Many in the IT sector have criticised the company, arguing it should have had better backups and an uninterruptable power supply in place, as well as a comprehensive disaster recovery solution.

This particular incident highlights the need for a robust IT system, and even more so for a backup and disaster recovery solution. Not only did this impact significantly on thousands of British Airways customers, the cost implications for British Airways are staggering; the company could be out of pocket by over £100 million.

A lot of criticism is aimed at British Airways’ “ageing” and “creaking” datacentre, which is old and is said to have “lots and lots of problems.” A number of other airlines have suffered from IT failures recently; Air France and German airline Lufthansa suffered a worldwide system outage, but this only impacted their abilities to board passengers, and was brief.

BA’s datacentre was reportedly designed in the 1980s, meaning it was desperately outdated. Some have claimed overheating in this antiquated datacentre was the root cause of the failure. Reported staff anecdotes suggest the datacentre had suffered with overheating for years; when the air conditioning failed to cool the equipment, staff members would hose the roof of the building down.

Many businesses are still operating on outdated hardware, software, systems and servers. This is often because there’s a fear that upgrades, new systems and machinery will cost an arm and a leg. However, with the prevalence of secure cloud services designed to remove the need for on premise servers, and subscription-based SaaS software, there’s no excuse to be stuck in the past. Digital transformation – a phrase you’ve probably heard by now – is happening right now, and is allowing businesses to be more productive, secure and ultimately more profitable.

Investment in IT is critical for success, security, and uptime. Over half of the companies listed in the Fortune 500 in 2000 have been displaced, as innovative new businesses who prioritise digital transformation take their places. IT infrastructure, innovative software and security is still seen as a cost that can be cut, rather than an investment that will reap significant benefits including potentially huge ROIs, increased productivity and less old-school machinery to maintain and house. IT Directors and CTOs/CIOs must now be at the forefront of business strategy, rather than simply a break-fix solution.

Don’t get left behind. Make sure IT is a priority in your business.