Heathrow Terminal 5 After The Dust Settles

Baggage, British Airways, Delays/Cancellations, LHR - London/Heathrow

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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25 comments on “Heathrow Terminal 5 After The Dust Settles

  1. Do they have free wifi in the new first class lounge? Couldn’t beleive it at Terminal 4 when they told me in the first class lounge that I’d have to pay for wifi!

  2. Well if I was a first class/premium passenger I think I would be feeling a bit duped too over the hype surrounding the T5 experience, looking at the service and food options on offer.

    I’m a not premium traveller but on the surface the Virgin dedicated check-in mini terminal offered over in T4 with dedicated security right through to your lounge sounds like something I would rather spend my money on.

  3. I fly premium internationally (6’4″ and econ for 12 hours do not mix) so I really want value because I’m paying for it.

    Frankly, the Asian carriers by and large are better then BA. This report just affirms that for me.

    BA sounds like a 1st-tier priced airline who are no better then a 2nd-tier carrier like Eva Air.

    I hope they spruce things up.

  4. Personally, I’m not quite sure why people are upset about having to pay for wi-fi, when at high end hotel chains, wi-fi is usually NOT free. Where it usually IS free, is in 2 or 3-star hotel brands like the Marriott Courtyard, Four Points by Sheraton and Hampton Inns.

    I’m not saying that the hotel model is necessarily a positive example, but it sure highlights that airlines aren’t the only ones to charge for things like wi-fi, even for its high end customers. Maybe it’s the expectation that high-end customers are likely traveling on business and can expense wi-fi charges.

  5. Last month I had occasion to listen to Willie Walsh, CEO of British Airways, speak at the Wings Club luncheon in Dublin. It was a week before the opening of Heathrow’s Terminal 5, and I couldn’t help feeling it was like promoting the Titanic before her maiden voyage. He said it would usher in efficiencies and improved productivity for BA. Too bad he didn’t think too much “efficiency” could result in a poor experience for business customers who expect something more than the privilege of self-service and from concentrate orange juice.
    The other thing I thought of is the imminent opening this Fall of Terminal 5 at New York’s Kennedy airport for JetBlue Airways, which is beautiful in its simplicity and unpretentious design. How ironic, it shares the same name.

  6. Free wi-fi has been implemented in airports across the world; if ABQ can do it, I can’t see why BAA or BA can’t pony up for it at T5. As far as high-end hotels, the FT had an interview with the head of Radisson/SAS who himself complained about it, citing the prevalence of free wi-fi at fewer-starred hotels as a reason for higher-end hotels to finally incorporate it into their base rate.

  7. Cranky…not to beat the drum here, but any coverage of the new PEK terminal? Yea yea more of your readers will use T5 eventually, but PEK T3 dwarfs it in size and I think already handles more pax.

  8. Never flown into PEK (always PVG) so not much to comment, but SIN recently opened a T3 as well and, well, it looked even more like a shopping mall. Not crazy about the new look in the biz SKL either; SKL C lounge in T2 may be “old” and “tired” but it cozy and comforting compared to the cold design of the new one. Meh.

    As for Heathrow Terminal 5 … I really don’t know what else to say except “Sorry” to anyone who’s stuck with BA. At least QF isn’t that bad.

  9. Slightly OT. Talking to UK friends there is a sense of resignment to the collapse Heathrow suffered, as well as the terminal decline of BA. Nobody I spoke to was surprised and very few could even manage outrage. The only person who seemed to not know this was going to happen was Willie Walsh.

    What suprised me was the nonchalant way BA dealt with the crisis in the opening 48hrs, such as continuing to releae statements praising the buildings design. I sense a US PR outfit would have been quicker in applying a band aid and soothing everybodies nerves. BA seemed somewhat unconcerned about public perception.

    I wonder if BA, in a way, is a product of the UK’s lack of expectation in them. They have been so poor at so many things for so long, nobody expects any better, including themselves.

  10. QRC – I’d love to talk more about the mammoth new PEK terminal, but I haven’t had any friends fly through yet. It’s a beautiful building, that’s for sure, but that’s about the extent of what I know at this point.

  11. The automatic bin return on the security machines is, I think, something that will start to appear in other airports. The system is confusing when you’ve never seen it before but I reckon in 10 years time it’ll be everywhere. Certainly they are very flash security machines.

    My understanding is that non-FIRST prem passengers have to take the “long” (i.e. about 150m round trip, with two escalators) route to the lounge because BAA want them all to walk past Harrod’s, the posh restaurant, some more shops etc…

  12. I’ll be through T5 on Monday morning and again a week later on my way to the Middle East; I’ll report back afterwards. Wish me luck…

  13. I flew in and out of T5 on 3 April, and I’m back again tomorrow (!).

    Here are some notes from my 3 April experiences LHR-GLA-LHR:

    So far living up to all expectations. After a surprisingly painless valet drop off at the South end, a helpful “Can I Help” lady pointed me to security. There are North and South security entry points, both providing access to the same common area. The security screening at the South took 24 minutes to clear, so nicely in excess of the promised ten.

    Six minutes were to wait to have my picture taken. All UK destination pax get this special treatment although everyone has to queue up. Two out of the six positions were manned.

    Then I had to wait eighteen minutes in the x-ray line. Yes, only one of about six xray machines were running at this South end, although two more did start to open up after some time.

    The overhead displays state that you “may” be asked to take your shoes off. So, as I wasn’t asked I didn’t, although all the sheep in front of me did remove their shoes regardless. I went through the body scanner, no alarms, but then I was told to go back through and take my shoes off anyway and re-scan.

    Lots of people with clipboards around the screening area.

    Everything scanned on the xray must be placed on a tray including rollaboards. The trays are supposed to automatically recycle, but as I waited for my stuff to come out of the xray machine the system had failed and there was a pile of trays backing up. This had to wait for one of the clipboard guys to turn up to deal with, meanwhile half a dozen gormless looking security staff looked on helpless.

    I mentioned to Mr Clipboard it had taken 24 minutes to clear security, and to be fair he apologised, something to do with the staff being in a meeting. But I really don’t care why: the point was they failed miserably to meet their own promised criteria of ten minutes.

    I discovered that Gordon Ramsay’s Plane Food outlet doesn’t open until 6am for breakfast, so I wondered around for ten minutes. The South Exec Club lounge is shut “due to flooding” another very helpful “Can I Help” chap informed me – I wryly thought “You couldn’t make it up!”.

    I took a quick look around the North Exec Club, or Galleries as they’re now called. Nothing particularly new or interesting except I noticed some people with Champagne glasses, but it wasn’t obvious where they’d found the Champagne: none of the bar areas I saw had any. The usual BA breakfast fare: tiny bacon rolls, croissants etc.

    So back the Ramsay’s for sustainance. Well I’ve hear some bad stories about this place, but my Classic full monty breakfast was as good as it gets. I am afraid that this is highly likely to become an instituation for me.

    Bill total: £18.56 including service. Slightly sloppy service but the tea was right proper tea. Freshly squeezed OJ. Fried eggs done to perfection. All prepared served in barely over five minutes.

    OK off to find my flight.

    Escalator down to air bridge was u/s so it was stairs. Air bridges are uber long.

    Boarding was all rather easy – it was only about 30% full, I guess that everyone’s avoiding BA, although it didn’t stop the ticket costing top dollar yesterday.

    Then guess what??? Plane went tech. Yip, you got it. They fixed it and we finally took off half an hour late.

    On the return, the flight was an hour late due to a crew sickness. Other than suffering the awfully tired GLA Exec Club lounge, not much to report other than the deplaning. Surprisingly BAA had actually realised we were turning up, and remarkably they had someone ready to operate the airbridge. But it was all too good to be true: the five-year-olds attempting to operate the airbridge took fifteen minutes to connect. Would have been quicker to have been bussed from a remote stand.

    Looking forward to tomorrow’s trip.

    Cheers, Howard

  14. I’ve flown out of T5 twice, and into it 3 times now.

    The first flight- 3 days after launch, wasn’t a happy experience……but twice into and once out of since then, it’s been a dream.

    Maybe i was one of the lucky ones, or more likely all we’re hearing about are the negative experiences.

    Of course people’s expectacions have been raised, and BAA need to deliver on this. i stress BAA. It’s their responsibility.

    I’d still rather fly from T5 again, before i had to deal with the misery of the rest of heathrow.

  15. Went through T5 last week on evening flight to HK. Thoroughly disappointed by the lack of fast track for gold card holders but airport was empty so no-one in the security queue. Xray machines are disastrous. If your bag is heavy it is unsafe to lift it to the extra height of the new system, lean over about 10 inches of ‘mechanism’ and plonk it into the tray. BAA will have a string of back complaint issues coming. The other end isn’t much better. If you take your carry on out of the tray first, the tray is free to zip off into the depths of the machine… carrying your keys, mobile etc still inside it. Frankfurt airport have a tray return system in which the trays are placed on edge and roll downhill from one side of security to the other. Simple, so nothing to go wrong. Doesn’t require the entire conveyor to be unduly high up either.

    First class lounge is huge and impersonal, food is lousy and drinks are placed far, far away from the food.

    A real disappointment.

  16. Has anyone travelled through terminal 5 recently? Are the flights on time? Bags still getting lost?

  17. Flown through it a number of times (this is a long time since the post, I found it looking for something else). “Regular” arrival is fine – bags turn up more quickly than pre-T5, passport control seems quicker etc. Flew through it when it opened and it was a disaster. Haven’t tried the arrivals lounge yet.

    I have gold access and the comments on the lounges are bang on – none of them are actually as good as the club/silver one at T4, there’s no real difference between club/silver and first/gold, the experience is ultra bland and getting to either of the lounges (there’s a north one and south one, and only the south one has a first/gold lounge) can require a very long and convoluted walk. Note that the north one is actually right next to north security (there are two security gates), but if you used your gold to get personal check in at first, you’re starting at the southmost point.

    Generally, it’s not awful, and T5 now seems up to speed for the regular traveller, but BA could have done a lot better for their premium passengers.

  18. Just been through T4, first class on the way in, and business on the way out. My experience was dreadful. It seems the fundamental problem with the building is that they have made it too big – it should have been 2 or 3 smaller terminals. I flew in (first class) to the satellite, and going down loads of escalators to take the short train to the terminal, then come back up loads of escalators to collect your bags. Irritating at best, it just delays the process of getting out of the terminal. Going in was even worse. No premium check-in, and no proper queues for the fast bag drop – so it was just a melée. Then the stupid security tray return thing that just didn’t work. Then being told you had to walk half way through the terminal and back again just to get to the lounges. The business class lounge was pretty miserable. The furniture was not as nice as the furniture in T4 (no proper armchairs for example). The lounges were also too big to be nice. Overall they could have done a much better job just by making the place smaller. I really hope they fix the premium check-in and the long walk to the lounges, or I’ll start flying Virgin.

  19. As a regular traveller through T5 (more often than not in premium cabins) I have absolutely no complaints. I arrived 2 days after the opening on a flight from St.Petersburg in Club. Bags were delivered promptly, no queues at passport control… The list could go on! On a quick domestic hop to NCL a week later I was able to try the south galleries lounge, in comparison to T1 terraces which I has been in two weeks earlier the difference was amazing! Finally daylight, the design, hot food… The list could go on! I was more than impressed, good on you BA! The North lounge doesn’t compare, although is convienient for domestic flights. I admit I was slightly annoyed at standing 15 minutes in a fast bag drop queue 3 weeks ago whilst on my way to Moscow in Club, for the price of the ticket you expect something a little more.

    Be ready though as I believe this week BA will be announcing the opening of their Club/Silver check in area. Since original posts a fast track at security has indeed appeared.

    In response to your comments about the arrivals lounge… I was also impressed by it when arriving on an overnight trip from JFK in Club. Just what I needed, the scrambled egg was even runny, and the showers were great!

    Good job BA, an airline that continues to win my custom any day over the likes of Virgin with their stupidly gimicky lounge. Use some of the other LHR terminals again, experience tiny over-crowded, dated lounges, or BA’s refreshing service and product… I know what wins my vote.

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