Saturday, February 2, 2008

LONDON — Airlines and airports have tried for decades to make the travel experience more pleasant. Since September 11, the problem has been more of how to make it pleasant.

If British Airways’ new Terminal 5 at London Heathrow Airport lives up to promises made upon its March 27 opening, pleasant air travel may be returning. Pleasant begins with a speedy check-in and security check and ends with speedy delivery of checked baggage on carousels or easy transfers to connecting flights.

Passengers whose flights originate from Heathrow will use the top level of Terminal 5’s main building (called T5A for Concourse A). They will enter an awesome, spacious area of glass and white-painted steel with a staggering number of customer-service desks and check-in kiosks. This is the fifth floor of T5A, an area that would hold 10 soccer fields.

Passengers entering this departures area may use any of the 96 self-service kiosks to check in and receive a boarding pass. If they already have a boarding pass, which they have printed during the 24 hours prior to their flight’s departure, they proceed to one of the 96 fast-bag-drop counters. Then they head to security with no more than two carry-on bags, which means one piece of luggage and a computer or one piece of luggage and a purse or briefcase.

Although passengers may print their boarding passes within 24 hours of departure, families may receive their seat assignments together two days before departure.

Passengers checking in at the self-service kiosks can make sure their carry-on bags are not too large by placing each one inside a steel frame by each kiosk. If a bag does not fit, it will not pass through the baggage scanner at security, and the passenger will have to return to a service desk to have the bag checked.

Passengers who do not use the self-service and fast-bag-drop at check-in can proceed to one of the other customer-service desks: There are 140 desks, including the 96 for fast-bag-drop. BA expects about 80 percent of its passengers checking in at Terminal 5 to use the self-service kiosks and says that with so many service desks, “the vast majority of customers will not have to queue at Terminal 5” and check-in will take less than five minutes.

During check-in for a recent BA flight from Heathrow to Washington Dulles International Airport, even the Club World — BA’s business class — queue was unpleasantly long except for those passengers who had printed a boarding pass.

At security in Terminal 5, the scanning machines offer a new feature: Bags will leave the scanner on one of two tracks, the inside track being for bags that will have to be opened and inspected. Thus, those passengers whose luggage must be inspected will not delay passengers whose bags are deemed safe for carry-on.

From there, BA says, “Gates will be no more than a six-minute walk from security.”

As for the end of flights arriving at Terminal 5, BA is so confident of its baggage delivery system that it says: “More often than not, bags will be waiting for customers on the carousel when they arrive at Terminal 5.”

This would be a pleasant day when compared to my last arrival at Heathrow’s Terminal 4, in which the Boeing 747 parked on an apron and passengers descended stairs to board buses and then walked forever to immigration, where the so-called Fast Lane was manned by one agent. That was followed by an even longer wait at the carousel for luggage.

About 90 percent of the passengers transferring to other BA flights will spend less time moving to the connecting flight; the other 10 percent may have to transfer to Terminal 3, where BA will have its Australasian flights and some European flights.

The three buildings of Terminal 5 are for British Airways flights only; code-sharing partners and other members of the One World alliance will use other terminals.

At Heathrow, BA has been using Terminals 1, 3 and 4, so it soon will have most of its flights under the roofs of Terminal 5, but some flights will move to London Gatwick Airport, and some flights to Gatwick will move to Terminal 5. An example: BA’s Houston and Dallas-Fort Worth flights move from Gatwick to Heathrow’s Terminal 4 on March 30, and at the end of April, they will move to Terminal 5.


The three buildings of Terminal 5 are one behind the other. They share an underground rail system for passengers, and there are connections to the London Underground’s Piccadilly Line and the Heathrow Express trains, which offer nonstop service between the airport and London’s Paddington Station. Access to trains departing for the west of England may be available in the future.

T5A is the main five-floor terminal, with an adjacent parking garage connected to it by passenger bridges, similar to the Metro connection to Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport. T5A will handle BA’s domestic and short-haul flights, while T5B will be devoted to long-haul operations.

T5B covers an area larger than the terminal at London Stansted Airport, not far away.

When T5C is completed in 2010, there may be a realignment of flights to terminals, but it is expected that with T5C, passengers will not have to be bused to a terminal.

Architecturally, T5A is very impressive. With eminent British architect Richard Rogers involved in the design, some elements are reminiscent of Madrid Barajas Airport, which won for the Richard Rogers Partnership the latest Sterling Prize, awarded “to the architects of the building which has made the greatest contribution to British architecture in the past year.”

This similarity is obvious in overhead lights near the customs exit on the arrivals floor and in the large steel supports of the roof, which in T5A are white instead of the progression of prismatic changes seen as one moves along the concourse of Barajas.

The Terminal 5 lounges for first-class and business-class passengers are elegant and spacious as well. This building also will house the first airport restaurant of one of Britain’s best-known chefs: The sign reads “Gordon Ramsay Plane Food.”

The upscale shopping areas will include the first shop in an airport for Prada, Italy’s leather and luxury goods firm. The more than 50 shops will have spaces for the likes of Gucci, Hermes, Paul Smith Globe and Tiffany & Co. as well as the traditional U.K. airport shops such as Boots (beauty products and other drugstore items) and WHSmith (books and magazines). It is promised that Terminal 5 will deliver the largest retail offering in any U.K. airport.

All these shops and Smythson (luxury leather goods and stationary printers), Caviar House & Prunier, and Krispy Kreme and, yes, Starbucks.

The lounges, though, are design successes in space and comfort. They sport Donghia furniture in the Concorde lounge, the bespoke fabric designs of Osborne & Little, and 3-D etched-glass screens by Christopher Pearson.

Chandeliers were commissioned from a firm in Venice and also from Swarovski, which has produced a clever series in its multifaceted and sparkling glass. These fixtures are a clever spoof on the traditional chandelier, which, at first glance, seems normal. However, each of the six candlestick and bulb sections and the center of the chandeliers are suspended independently on a thin wire from the ceiling and are not connected to each other. The illumination comes only from halogen lights shining on the glass from the ceiling.

At the entrance to a first-class lounge, guests will pass between two lifesize dark brown horses, apparently made from a polyresin compound. Above the head of each horse is a large lampshade.

There are wine bars, most of them class-conscious; a champagne bar; Elemis spa facilities; and all the comforts of home, including several bedrooms.

The Terminal A complex will have six lounges that look a flight ahead of today’s BA lounges at Heathrow. Together, they are the Galleries; separately, they are the Concorde Room, the first-class lounge; three Club World (business class) lounges; and an Arrivals Lounge.

The Concorde Room — accommodating 156 passengers — will have concierge service to take care of necessities such as booking theater tickets. A restaurant will offer refreshments and meals throughout the day. This lounge is to be mirrored in the British Airways terminal at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York.

The Galleries First Lounge — 542 seats — is for first-class and Gold Executive Club members. It has a bar covered in gold leaf — called the Gold Bar, of course — beneath the Swarovski chandeliers. Prestigious wines here, and a champagne bar, work and entertainment facilities, and a customer-service desk.

The Galleries Club Lounge is for Club World, Club Europe, and Gold and Silver Executive Club members. It has 830 seats, two Silver bars, more Swarovski, a wine gallery, and work and entertainment facilities. The building that handles long-haul flights will have a 465-seat Galleries Club Lounge.

British Airlines was an innovator among airlines in installing shower facilities at its arrivals lounge for business- and first-class passengers. In the Galleries Arrivals Lounge in Terminal 5, passengers will find three types among the 94 shower rooms: full-body jet, steam shower and deluxe massage. Another service that will continue is the pressing of suits while the customer is showering.


Nearby, the large digital countdown clock in British Airways’ Waterside headquarters is flicking away the seconds until the March 27 opening hour for Terminal 5.

“Finally, we will be under one roof,” says a spokesman for the airline. One terminal, yes, but with three roofs, and not yet complete, but the terminal is expected to open on schedule.

Terminal 5 has been a long time happening, has cost a lot of money and has been a forward step in ecological construction.

Consider these facts:

• Harvested rainwater will account for 70 percent of the water used in the new terminal.

• A superstrength concrete used to build the taxiways eliminated the need for about 60,000 tons of carbon dioxide.

• More than 300,000 tons of demolition and waste concrete was processed into aggregate and reused on the site.

• Crushed green glass from recycling banks was used as a subbase in construction of temporary sites.

• Pulverized fuel ash from power stations was used in making the concrete for Terminal 5.

• More than 300,000 trees, shrubs and plants will landscape the area.

Then there are other astounding statistics about the new terminal, such as more than 11 miles of baggage belts; that the baggage system will handle up to 12,000 bags per hour; and 50 soccer fields could fit on T5A’s five floors. The parking garage will have 4,000 spaces. The underground transit system can move 6,500 passengers per hour at a speed of 30 mph; the vehicles will operate on two tracks running east or west every 90 seconds. Passengers will be able to travel between T5A and T5C in 45 seconds.

BAA is the owner of Heathrow and six other U.K. airports. With consultation with British Airways, BAA built Terminal 5 exclusively for the airline. During the planning stages, some proposed retail space was used instead for security scanning to help speed passengers onto their flights. If it all works as planned — and it is being tested with would-be passengers and pretend luggage — Terminal 5 will be a brave new world for air travelers.


British Airways’ many flights from the United States to Heathrow now include two daily flights from Washington Dulles and one from Baltimore-Washington International Airport. However, on March 30, BA will operate 24 flights weekly between Dulles and Heathrow on Boeing 747 and 767 aircraft; on three days weekly, BA Flight 264 will leave Dulles at 11 p.m., arriving at Heathrow at 11:25 a.m. the following day. The flights from BWI are on 767s.

British Airways recently has been flying aviation writers, travel writers and industry Web site contributors to Heathrow to see Terminal 5. On my recent flight from London in Club World, the food was surprisingly good: a tasty Lancashire hot pot, traditionally several layers of potatoes, onions and lamb. Although the BA dish was too shallow for multiple layers, the flavor and texture of meat and vegetables were fine. An afternoon snack included a lemon meringue tart with an amazingly perfect, thin pastry shell, remarkable for airline fare.

BA’s new Club World seats are more comfortable than their predecessors and still become flat, horizontal beds; the larger, firmer pillow (in a pale-blue-and-sand-patterned Colefax & Fowler fabric) is another step up in comfort.

For more information, go to or call 800/247-9297.

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