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FedEx to sort out Heathrow baggage mess

British Airways hires US shipper

Following a glitch in the computerized luggage system, bags at Heathrow are being rescreened manually Following a glitch in the computerized luggage system, bags at Heathrow are being rescreened manually (Shaun Curry/AFP/Getty Images)
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Bloomberg News / April 2, 2008

LONDON - British Airways PLC canceled 50 flights at London Heathrow airport's new Terminal 5 and brought in US courier firm FedEx Corp. to help reunite passengers with about 20,000 delayed bags.

The airline scrapped 13 percent of scheduled flights from the terminal on the sixth day of disruption at Europe's busiest airport. Another 50 flights will be abandoned today, a British Airways spokeswoman Sophie Greenyer said.

Cancellations caused by snags in the $8.5 billion terminal's computerized baggage system total more than 300 since it opened on March 27. The number of bags waiting to be returned to their owners has risen by about one-third in the past two days, though British Airways is now beginning to reduce the backlog, it said.

"We are making progress on the backlog but getting bags back to passengers is complicated and quite time-consuming," Greenyer said. Hundreds of volunteers from the London-based carrier and package-delivery firms including FedEx have been drafted in to forward the luggage to its owners, she said.

British Airways, whose chief executive Willie Walsh says he accepts responsibility for the chaos, rose 6.4 percent in London. The stock has dropped 20 percent this year, reducing its value to $5.67 billion.

The airline had been counting on Terminal 5, which took 20 years to plan and build, to help ease journeys and retain passengers put off by Heathrow's overcrowding. The company took possession of the complex in September from BAA Ltd., which is owned by Madrid-based Grupo Ferrovial SA, starting what it described as "exhaustive" customer trials that month.

Following a technical glitch in the computerized luggage system that saw handlers unable to log-on, bags that have been unloaded at Heathrow are being rescreened manually. In some instances, this requires the luggage to be driven to London Gatwick airport for the security checks.

UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown said Monday "BA and BAA have to take responsibility."

FedEx handled about 800 bags at Heathrow Monday and planned to deliver about that many bags again yesterday, spokeswoman Sally Davenport said. The Memphis, Tenn.-based company has helped British Airways handle passenger baggage in the past, she said.

FedEx is the second-largest US package shipper behind Atlanta-based United Parcel Service Inc.

British Airways has yet to give guidance on flight cancellations for the rest of the week.

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