Heathrow’s Terminal 5 is a slap in the face of the current UK government’s love of big tangled public private partnerships. It was surprisingly delivered on time and on budget primarily it seems because there was actually somebody responsible for getting it done. While there were subcontractors, there would be no mealy-mouthed blame-shifting and finger pointing when it failed, was shoddy, late and over budget, as big projects in this country inevitably are. There would be no tangled webs of intricate outsorcery, no rapacious subcontractors sucking eagerly on sweetened, risk-free deals, only to sue at the drop of a hat for little breaches of large contracts. With this government’s prediliction to fudge and quango (is that a verb? should be) there is often no real sense of right and wrong and clear ownership. The lawyers and economists trough happily, while Joe Public normally gets trampled underfoot.
So my heart was lifted when I heard that Terminal 5 touched down on time with perfect poise – one in the eye for common sense I thought. And the pictures of the terminal were indeed not bad for London, used to dealing with the infra-tragedy that is Heathrow Terminal’s 1–4 – a creaking, dirty place that makes Zimbabwe look like a bation of good management.
And how many airlines have the luxury to have their very own terminal, all to themselves? BA must have been delighted themselves that they could finally set aside their usual excuse of shoddy experience – not us gov, it’s BAA – and work to make this the best in flight experience money and technology could buy. The website holds little back: “The creation of Terminal 5 was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for us to redefine air travel. Our aim was to replace the queues, the crowds and the stress with space, light and calm.” Fat chance. Their proud claim in the adverts of 10 minutes from check in to departure gate even had me rather excited. Fuggedaboutit.
The news stories started to flood in – perhaps with a sense of schadenfreude. I checked mine – still on time – and checked-in online at BA’s site - all working fine.
When I arrived to catch my flight I had left half an hour to get through security. In terminal 1 there is a separate section for Exec Club members and biz class, and it’s really pretty good most of the time. When I arrived the massive foyer of Terminal 5 it’s not obvious what you do. I asked where to go through security, and they said – South securty was full, so go to North security. Er, ok. Any Exec Club Gold Card option? Er, they might be one over in South side, but it was “miles away” and not worth the bother.
>> Figuring out where security was: 2 minutes.
So I head to the North security. Nobody had told us that there doing biometric checks before security. Seemed to be taking pictures of everyone. Why? Apparently because international and domestic passengers were mixing up. And the point of that is what? This system was completely borked. Long lines just to get through to the next lines waiting for security. As the queues mount, flustered staff run around on walkie-talkies. There are absolutely loads of them with blue Tshirts on offering to help. But it seems they spent on all money on greeters and none on the security desks. So, they decide that anyone on international flights can just go through without getting their brained scanned, iris extracted or first born branded, or whatever they were doing. We trundle through to cattle station 2 security.
>> Waiting in a fruitless line to get a biometric whatsit taken, but then just being ushered through: 20mins.
Inside a big airy hall there are about 50 security machines. Unfortunately there are only about 5 open. I hear someone say there’s a fast track line over there, so I trundle through (even though wasn’t biz class, i reckon my gold card sort of counts, no?). Getting to the second line it doesn’t seem to be moving. There are about 10 staff on the solitary machine, and each seem to be having long conversations with each passenger and moving at a glacial pace. A bunch of people rush to the front of the queue with that serious “i’m going to miss my flight but i’m also a bit embarassed to be queue jumping look on”. We stand around. As am getting close to the front, an uninspiring lady says – “go to the next machine, this one’s broken”. Sorry doesn’t seem to be in their vocabulary. Trundle off to next door machine. Bags go in. Laptop stays in bag – yay – and am through security.
>> Getting through the world’s slowest “Fast track” security line: 20mins
And then I have to figure out which gate am meant to be going from. Ooh look – big shiny LCD screens. near the exit from security. But no, they are for adverts. There’s a big screen in the middle of the foyer, I go there and find that I’m in Gate B45. That means getting to the shiny shuttles – reminiscent of most American airports I’ve been to. So on i hop, and emerge at the B gates.
>> Going from security to the B gates. 10mins (includes running up two escalators with bags)
I arrive breathless at the gate, and despite being after the gate closing time, we’ve not boarded. Great. Mill around for a while, and then when we are called to get on, they announce that the shiny new walkway is not working, so we’ve going to have to take steps down to the tarmac, then steps up to the plane. That’s my favourite bit about Heathrow – they always seem to have broken walkways, but this on day 4 of the next terminal seems a bit rich.
>> Getting on the plane and dozing the stress away: priceless.
So, in the end i got my flight. Yet it was just a collossal disappointment that had nothing to do with a bunch of lost bags. It was as if we’d spent £4bn on a nice shiny car, but nobody had bothered to learn how to drive it. There really should be as much thought going into the processes and the staff as the buildings, and that is where I blame BAA management for now figuring out the process better. It wasn’t a question of early hitches - this seemed like a terminal without a plan and the people didn’t seem to have been told what they should be doing. Still, the good news is maybe they’ll learn given the massive media pressue, and the roof looks nice. The bad news for me is they won’t learn by the time I have to use it again – twice – this week.