When it comes to Heathrow Airport in London — arguably one of the most congested, busiest airports in the world — change doesn't happen fast.
Airline delays, massive amounts of misplaced, damaged or lost bags, missed flight connections — these frustrations have defined Heathrow for years. And all this at an airport that sees more international passengers than any other airport in the world.
And, let's not forget — despite all the increased air traffic, there are still only two runways.
In the recent past, I've actually boycotted not just Heathrow, but all United Kingdom airports because of an absurd rule allowing passengers only one carry-on bag. I bypassed Heathrow in particular at every opportunity, choosing airports in Amsterdam, Frankfurt and Zurich instead.
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Thankfully, at the beginning of this year the British Airport Authority (BAA) rescinded the rule at most U.K. airports, including Heathrow. And it all happened in time to welcome the new Terminal 5. It only took 18 years to design, more than 20,000 workers to build and cost nearly $9 billion to finish. Finally, later next month, it will open.
Queen Elizabeth will be there on March 27th to mark the official opening, just as she was in 1955 when the first permanent building at Heathrow was opened. On this one day, British Airways will be moving 90 percent of its operations into Terminal 5 — a massive logistics challenge. And the old Terminal 4? It will house many U.S. carriers now allowed to fly into Heathrow under the new open-skies policy — Delta, Continental, Northwest and others, including even Air France, which will start Boeing 777 nonstop service from London to Los Angeles.
The new Terminal 5, where British Airways will be the sole airline tenant, is a most welcome addition to the hodgepodge of buildings and terminals that spread, almost without logic or reason, around the former village. From a design and architectural perspective, the building is certainly impressive. It's five stories tall, supported by 22 massive white steel "trees." It's so large that engineers had to reroute two nearby rivers.
If the designers are right, passengers will flow through the terminal in a logical, linear way. The building is designed to handle 80,000 passengers a day, and 13,000 bags per hour.
Security checkpoints in Terminal 4 number eight. But at Terminal 5, they've been more than doubled to 20.
Inside, it's hard to tell whether it's a terminal or a mall. Inside a space larger than 50 soccer fields, you'll find 112 stores, ranging from Tiffany to Harrods, and some other U.S. brand names like Starbucks (and you thought their coffee in the U.S. was expensive?) and yes, even Krispy Kreme. One of my favorite London restaurants, Wagamama, is opening in T-5, and even star chef Gordon Ramsey is premiering his first airport restaurant. And all retail establishments have been asked to create and sell a product sold nowhere else than Terminal 5 (yes, Krispy Kreme will be marketing a special T-5 doughnut).
When the terminal opens, it won't just be state of the art. It will be state of the ad. Passengers will be bombarded with giant electronic billboards — not just departure and arrival boards, but 333 billboards and 206 flat-screen TVs used primarily for advertising. That's a staggering number. JFK, for example, only has 40 billboards, and LAX only 34 — in the entire airport! The advertising mavens estimate that passengers in T-5 will see between 50 and 120 ads as they make their way through the terminal and onto their flights.
Baggage transfers — at least in theory — will be fast and seamless, with no winding, ugly conveyor belts (although there are 11 miles of belts, but designed in a way to take bags directly to planes). Instead, 100 baggage desks are in the departures building so passengers can drop off bags and head directly to gates. And the departures area is loaded with nearly 100 kiosks.
Other perks: six different departures lounges. There's even an Elemis day spa.
As with most airports — but especially this one — it's hard to tell if the designers want you to spend time in the building or leave quickly. Other than lounge areas, it's hard to find a lot of terminal seating. The reason? Designers feel that once passengers enter the departures area, they won't need to sit. They'll just check in at a kiosk, drop off their bags and head directly through security.
That is, of course, until there's an electronic failure, bad weather or a traffic jam on the roads leading to the terminal. Otherwise known as ... real-life scenarios.
Still, there are some design features that are really welcome. A 600-room Sofitel hotel is about to open near T-5, directly linked to the main building.
You can take the Heathrow express train right to Terminal 5, and then an underground track system to two of the satellite buildings of T-5. And the underground track system — which can move more than 6,500 passengers an hour — makes for easier movement of airplanes from jetways to runways.
Which brings me to the subject of runways. For years, there's been talk of adding a third runway at Heathrow to alleviate all the ground congestion and taxiway delays. If you think 18 years is a long time to wait for Terminal 5, we all may be waiting longer for that third runway.
Will the delays at Heathrow be reduced? Probably not. So, in terminal terms, it may be style over substance, experience over expedience.
So, for the moment, once Terminal 5 opens, at least we can spend our time waiting in comfortable lounges, shopping at Tiffany and eating well. And let's not forget the facials or the hand, arm and back massages at the spa. We may need them!
Peter Greenberg is TODAY’s Travel editor. His column appears weekly on TODAYshow.com. Visit his Web site at PeterGreenberg.com.
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