Heathrow Terminal 5 After The Dust Settles

A friend of mine who frequently flies out of London/Heathrow wrote to me recently and wondered why my coverage had been so light on the new Terminal 5. I guess I was just waiting to see when things calmed down. I mean, everyone has been talking about how horrible the problems have been since it opened, and I didn’t think I had much to add. Just about every facility has teething problems, even huge ones like we’ve seen in this case.

So, he gave me some good fodder for a post. Instead of focusing on the opening problems, let’s look at the experience as it’s supposed to be. The verdict? My friend is not so happy.

  1. Limited-to-no premium check-in – My friend always flies business class for his frequent work trips, and he noticed that while there was a “tiny first class check in area,” there was “no dedicated first/gold card security lane” and “no business class check in at all.”

    Hmm, that didn’t seem right to me, but sure enough, that was BA’s plan all along. I spoke with John Lampl, spokesman for BA here in the US, about these issues, and he confirmed that “one of the concepts is . . . no dedicated queues for premium travelers, because what we expect them to do is check in online . . . get to the airport in time for their flight, go through the bag drop [if necessary] and security and go up to the lounge.”

    How strange. John says this comes from a great deal of research, but I know there are premium travelers who prefer the personal touch and want a human being to take care of things for them. Unfortunately now, if you want help from a real person, you have to wait in line with everyone else. The goal is, of course, to have no lines at all, but that’s not always realistic.

  2. Security validation – Apparently BA has set up a fancy pants system that makes you scan your boarding pass when you go through security. According to John, if you have a valid boarding pass and you’re there more than 35 minutes prior to your flight’s departure time, then you shouldn’t have any trouble. That didn’t work out so well for my friend. He says:

    “I checked in online and printed [my] boarding pass but had to go to [the] check in desk to have my [ticket] ‘validated’ or activated in the system. This was after stopping by the first check in area and having been told to proceed to security.”

    Hmm, this doesn’t sound very good either. I’m sure there are opening day glitches, but it’s not far-fetched for a boarding pass to get corrupted or a system to malfunction. Sending someone back to the general check-in area every time there’s a problem is not only aggravating, but it’s poor customer service.

  3. Lounge locations – As a gold card holder on BA, he’s entitled access to certain lounges. Apparently, it’s not very convenient in his eyes. He says:

    “There is a door into the lounge area right by security but it is for pax booked in first only (a gold card won’t cut it…) so to access the lounge you have to walk in a loop, go downstairs, then back upstairs.”

    That seems rather strange to me, but John says there is some hope here. “We had elevator problems in the first few days. He may have been forced to go downstairs and then upstairs.” So hopefully this one isn’t a problem.

  4. Security bins – “Everything has to go in a security bin – even your bags. Someone tried to get way too clever and design an automatic bin return. Needless to say that does not work to well. And my carry-on got stuck in the stupid bin.”

    Yeah, that’s definitely frustrating. Sometimes, the most simple things are the best way to go. Designing an automatic return system may sound good in theory, but it could end up being more trouble than it’s worth. Hopefully this one is just part of those “opening day jitters.”

  5. Lounge quality – Apparently, once my friend found the lounge, it was fine, but that’s about it.

    “Lounge is nice – food is nothing special at all. Virgin still kicks their ass on this front – in fact I think BA will lose a lot of business to Virgin b/c the setup here for a premium pax is stupid. . . . Regular lounges have same and more food than first. I don’t think it qualifies as a coffee house if you have automatic machines that make marginal cappuccinos. Champagne bars with only 2 champagnes would not last long. Oh – why can they do decent fresh oj on plane but [the] lounge has concentrate?”

    Something tells me this could be an issue of overpromising with the brand. What do I mean? If they’re going to call it a “champagne bar,” which they do, then it probably should have more than 2 types of champagne. If it’s just a lounge, then 2 champagnes are fine.

    The orange juice issue is the one that is most likely to get action. When I told that to John, he said, “I totally agree with him. We will take that comment and that will be sent to the people catering the lounges.”

  6. Arrivals lounge – Once my friend returned, he sent me a follow up note about the arrivals experience. Though many of those gripes were probably just “teething problem,” I think his notes on the arrivals lounge were interesting.

    “Classic BA. Indifferent staff, no warm greetings and same crap food. You really think they could make something better on the ground than in an airplane. I especially like the “self service” luggage check. You present your bags, the counter clerk open the little gate and says “Yep. Take them back there”. Staffing levels clearly low. No one at the spa area or shower check in.”

    Sounds adequate but nothing more, in his eyes.

So that was about it. My friend summed it up after his trip by saying “Compared to [Virgin Atlantic], I would say BA completely lost the plot and missed a huge opportunity to create a great space for premium pax. Watch their load factors drop.” That’s certainly an unfortunate opinion and not one that will please BA. I know they were trying to do something amazing here.

So, for him it was clearly a disappointing experience, but one man does not represent everyone. Who else has an opinion of the Terminal 5 experience? Anyone else have a different view on things?

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