I know it’s been a month, but I’ve still had a few posts on the backburner from my London trip. You didn’t think I’d stop posting without something on Heathrow’s Terminal 5, did you? I spent a fair bit of time in the terminal and it is an impressive place, for the most part. Of course, it was absurdly expensive to build, but as I wrote on BNET, the price may have been justifiable in this case. Shocking to hear me say that, I know, and I’m sure there were ways to cut down on cost, but much of it was unavoidable.
Most of you know Heathrow as that awful place where congestion is such a part of life that your plane has to circle a couple times on arrival and when you do arrive, your bags immediately get lost. That’s why British Airways was so focused on building Terminal 5. Heathrow’s previous arrangement had Terminals 1, 2, and 3 in the central terminal area between the two runways. Terminal 4 was on the south side of the airport, completely away from the other three. BA’s long haul operation was in Terminal 4 and its short haul operation was primarily in Terminal 1 and that meant trouble.
The long distances made for all sorts of problems. Yes, bags got lost frequently and connections were long and painful for people as well. Terminal 4 was a nightmare because being on the far south side meant that to get to and from the north runway, BA airplanes had to cross the south runway. That was a very time-consuming process at an airport that operates at maximum capacity. The parking areas were also very tight, so like Delta at JFK, BA had traffic jams between its own airplanes that caused delays.
So BA worked with airport operator BAA to build a more than £4 billion new terminal to the west of the existing central terminal area. That became Terminal 5. Why didn’t they build Terminal 4 there? Well, there was a big sewage treatment plant and that had to be relocated along with a bunch of other stuff. That’s one of the reasons that the terminal was so expensive. There was a ton of site prep work.
But now Terminal 5 is built and it’s a great place. There is the main terminal area T5A and then two satellites connected by an underground train, T5B and the soon-to-open T5C. I arrived in T5B, as do most of the US flights, and found that the scale of the terminal was not noticeable upon arrival. You are shuttled through a series of escalators and trains, and when you finally come out, the arrivals area is a very small place with just a couple of shops. There are in-terminal connections to the Tube, the Heathrow Express train, the Sofitel Hotel, and a ton of buses that take you all over. It works very well, though the up and down of the escalators can be somewhat confusing after a long flight.
The departure level is where you really sense the size and feel of the terminal. The ticketing area is enormous and it lies in a huge open space. The concept has you check in at podiums and then keep walking through to a wall of shops at the back. Security sits on both sides, and I’m told that if the line on the left side is long, go to the right where the premium check-in areas are. Those may be shorter.
Once through security, you come in on a mezzanine level above the departure areas. There are a couple of shops and restaurants up top but much of the action is down below. Once you descend to that level, you get that trademark Heathrow shopping experience where you’re completely overwhelmed. It’s just crazy how much shopping they are able to shoehorn into that place. If you’re a fancy pants flier, you can head to the right where the bulk of the lounges are in the terminal. This is one place where the smooth flow is interrupted. Instead of just walking from the mezzanine into the lounge, you have to go down and then back up to reach that area. Goofy.
There are two large Club World and First Class lounges that also welcome BA’s elites. They’re large, light, and have a ton of options including things like food and champagne bars. Then there’s the Concorde Room. This room is only for First Class passengers and it is old-school. It uses a lot of dark wood, has a fire burning, and is a very quiet place unlike the other First Class lounge. It’s traditional British luxury at its best. The room has a full service dining area and an excellent balcony area where you can look over the little people down below. It also has a couple of private day rooms for those with long layovers. Unfortunately, I wasn’t allowed to take any pictures in any of the lounges.
Back with the normal folks, I found there to be plenty of seating. T5A is where the domestic flights go from so you see a lot more narrowbodies there. To board, you actually descend another level to the gate itself. It flows well. If you need to go out to the satellites, you descend to the train which takes you there. There are some shops and a lounge (on T5B) for people, but you shouldn’t go out there unless you know your gate. Once you go out to T5B or C, you can’t come back to T5A. It’s happened before and apparently required BA’s staff to step in to help figure out a way out without going into the customs area.
Underground, there are apparently several stories of a baggage system that does what Denver’s system was supposed to do before the airlines gave up on it. The result is that lost bag numbers have plummeted and on-time percentage has spiked. When the snow/ice storm hit in December, BA had to cancel scores of flights like the other airlines, but while other terminals had to set up tents to deal with all the stranded passengers, BAA built Terminal 5 to have enough extra space that it wasn’t necessary.
According to BA, the cost savings have been so huge in terms of improved on-time performance, shorter taxi times, and better baggage numbers that it is easily paying for itself, even with the large increase in costs at the airport. In that sense, the savings justify the insanely high cost. Could they have shaved a billion off the place with a less grandiose design? I would assume that there could have been more savings and I wish they would have taken advantage of them. Then maybe airlines like bmi wouldn’t feel so much pressure to drop shorter haul flights because the costs have gone up too much.
But Heathrow is still constrained with two runways and the government has opted to ignore the problem and refuse a new runway. That means Heathrow will continue to see more and more long haul at the expense of short haul so the cost doesn’t have as much of an impact in those cases. For passengers, the experience is certainly a good one, and it’s nothing like it used to be.