Terminal 5 in Training

If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you’ll know that I’ve been incommunicado for the past few days because I went to Edinburgh for the weekend, which involved departing from (cue the drum roll…) Heathrow’s brand new Terminal 5. Here’s what happened.

Left home at 2pm. Caught Heathrow Express to Terminal 5. All went to plan and, (surprisingly for London), on time. At T5, great glass elevators (reminding me of Roald Dahl’s Charlie) sped arriving passengers to the check-in area – a massive glass hall sprinkled liberally with computer check-in points and fast bag drop counters. Having checked in online, I dropped off my bag (no queues anywhere) leaving plenty of time to explore.

Land-side, there were some shops and restaurants reminiscent of the high street – in other words, the usual WH Smith’s, Carluccio’s etc etc. Went through to air-side, involving the usual “look at the camera” moment as a customs official takes a snap just in case you fine tune your skills as a threat to national security. Then moved on to the “have you any liquids in your carry-on?” part where the seasoned traveller smugly whips out a see-through plastic bag of sub-100ml liquid bottles of health and make-up paraphernalia and disappears in a cloud of Chanel, whilst the rest of us fumble and drop things and forget to pull out their perfume, causing the uniformed staff to pause the conveyor belt and groan at their screens as they turn and huff their disappointment at Forgetful Traveller. Said perfume is removed from carry-on and bag and separate clear plastic bag now containing perfume are sent to be x-rayed again. (Can anyone else see the missing logic in this?) Meanwhile the rest of us clear all pockets of change, mobiles and keys and pull off boots, belts, jackets, under-jackets, anything bulky enough to require a trip through the x-ray machine. In stocking feet and somewhat under-dressed, we are eventually instructed to walk through the metal detector, playing the “will it beep, won’t it beep?” game, hoping for the all clear, but no, the beep sounds indicating that we’ve forgotten something, hence the need for a nice, intimate frisk from a same-sex security official before receiving the all-clear to get dressed again (or otherwise). So, in brief, that rigmarole that we’re all accustomed to nowadays happened on my arrival at T5, but it was impressively painless with very short queues so Terminal 5 gets full marks in the Security Category.

By now, I was loving this place. I love airports, anyway. All the comings and goings create a sensation of a much wider world than we experience on an average work day. I set off to explore, walking up and down the two T5 levels lined with shops, snack bars and spacious seating areas giving onto huge, glass windows. The plane-spotter in me was delighted. I could watch planes parked at gates and moving to or from runways. The only sad part was that they were all BA so I couldn’t play “spot the tail” and pat myself on the back because I recognised the tail colours of Garuda Air. C’est la vie; we can’t have it all.

There are arrivals and departures screens at frequent intervals so it should (technically) be impossible to miss your flight, especially as they tell you how long it will take to walk to gates, according to gate categories A, B and C. There are luxury shops, a high- quality London souvenir shop with a Union Jack-decorated mini in its midst, (reminding me of Stephen Clarke’s Merde Happens in which hero, Paul West takes one such car across the States), and the expected large duty free stores wafting fragrance out onto the sweet-smelling concourse.

Having a lovely time so far, but, of course, something had to go wrong. Since T5’s opening on 27 March, it has been causing frustration to many, mainly by losing bags by the hundred or alternatively delaying its passengers. I was hit by the latter. First, my flight was delayed by 50 minutes. That was okay as far as delays go and there was certainly plenty to do. I toyed with the idea of trying out Gordon Ramsay’s T5 venture, suitably titled “Plane Food”, or grabbing a miso soup at Itsu. There was always Pret, but that’d make me feel like I was still at work. What about fair-trade Giraffe? Nah. Too many people. The Caviar House venture looked pleasant but would eat into my weekend’s budget by a cool £15.00 just for a salad, and I didn’t know if there would be enough time to slurp on Wagamama’s giant noodle bowls. So I settled for an emergency sandwich from a newsagent and settled into a comfy, retro-style bucket chair to eat, read and wait.

Between bites and pages, I watched the departures board. By 4.30pm (15 minutes after my scheduled take-off) the 9 flights listed on the board before mine were either delayed, late or suggested “enquire airline”. This wasn’t looking good but I certainly wasn’t alone. Quite cosy by this point and thoroughly into my book, my Japanese neighbour interrupted: “Excusah me. Are you waiting for the flight for Edinborr?” He asked. “Yes, I am.” I replied, trying to compute his level of psychic ability. ” We have a gate now.” He said, before nodding graciously and leaving to find our plane. For the category of comfortable waiting areas, T5 also scores highly. On the delay itself, it gets 5 out of 10. The only reason it got 5 points is that I’ve experienced far worse.

At the gate, we had to wait a further 15 minutes to board and, once on board, the flight was so full that we had to wait again whilst passengers found places for all their carry-on. We finally moved off the gate almost two hours late. The captain made an effusive apology, before excusing the delay: “I’m afraid we don’t have enough air traffic controllers at work today, so all flights both in and out of Heathrow are late. We really do apologise for any inconvenience this may cause” Yep, and it would seem there are leaves on the track again. “Oh, and the control tower has just told me that we have a half-hour wait for a take off slot, so we’re going to be sitting here a while longer.” A mass moan shuddered through the cabin. Why can’t anyone in London just tell us the truth? “Due to our huge population, we’re currently useless at organising transportation so you don’t expect to get to work/ your weekend destination/ to meet your friend on time today. That’s life in London, so you’d better get used to it.” At least that sort of comment would be honest. As everyone sitting around me knew, T5’s infrastructure was not yet functioning properly, so no matter how swish and fabulous the terminal might be on the inside, it simply wasn’t ready for the public.

We waited in the queue, we eventually took off, we enjoyed a pleasantly uneventful hour-long flight to Edinburgh, complete with proper plane food, and eventually landed. Yawn. That was a boring sentence.

However, our adventures had yet to end. Quite a large group of people from our flight still had not received their luggage by the time the baggage claim conveyor belt stopped and stood empty. I was one of this group. Sighing at our stupidity in trusting our bags to the hold (we’d all seen the negative press about lost luggage at Terminal 5), we trudged down to the BA luggage counter. Having processed quite a few complaints, a penny dropped with one of the clerks “I bet there’s something stuck in the conveyor belt.” he muttered as he stomped off towards the baggage claim area with his faithful following (us) directly behind him. After a lot of shouting through those big rubber flaps through which bags appear and disappear, a big orange light started flashing and a sign told us to beware of the conveyor as it was about to start moving. Someone yelled “hooray!”, another passenger sheepishly moved forward to claim the offending item that had jammed the conveyor, and the clever clerk spoke up “sorry about that. My colleagues went to tea so no one knew there was a jam on the belt.” By that point, reunited with our beloved bags, we were all too grateful to care.

In summary, T5 scores the following (1 point = worst, 10 points = best):

  • arrival via train: 10 points
  • check- in efficacy: 10 points
  • security: 10 points
  • design: 10 points
  • facilities: 10 points (Giles Coren would love the hand-dryers – cold air but so fast!)
  • waiting areas: 8 points (very comfortable but no one likes waiting THAT much)
  • gates: 6 points (a bit of a mess when we got there)
  • delays: 5 points
  • plane-spotting potential: 5 points (different airlines would make it more fun, but that’d defeat the purpose of having a BA terminal)
  • staff: 8 points (for once, a cheery customs official)
  • shops: 8 points (lost 2 for having too much to spend your money on BEFORE you leave the country)
  • places to eat: 10 points (excellent variety)
  • luggage: 10 points. (It reached Edinburgh so we can’t blame T5 for that one.)

Terminal 5 is still in training so we need to be patient while it gets on its feet. Once there, though, it shows every sign of being a benchmark airport facility. Fingers crossed, this won’t take as long as it did to build.


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