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August 21, 2009

The Hell Hole of Heathrow's Terminal Five

Not a line in sight at Terminal 5's main terminal.
Photo: garybembridge on Flickr using Creative Commons

by Clive Irving

Nearly 18 months after the disastrous opening of British Airways Terminal 5, its early teething troubles are behind it. The overall experience is as advertised: The main terminal T5A provides speedy check-in, efficient security and clear signage. Once in the passenger areas it may feel too much like a shopping mall, but it's a polished, light and airy one, with a wide and good choice of food and refreshment. (The owner is not British Airways, but the British Airports Authority, which has a history of being more energized by the profits of shopping than the convenience of travelers.)

Note my caveat, "the main terminal T5A." There is another limb, the satellite terminal T5B, and that is where most BA flights between the U.S. and London have their gates. Between the two concourses is a large area of taxiways. In order to get passengers to and from terminal T5B into T5A (where immigration and baggage halls are for incoming flights), the architects built a tunnel for robot shuttle trains.  This tunnel is deep--to reach the train outgoing passengers have a choice of either a steep and long escalator or elevators.

The real problems begin, however, with arriving passengers.

At peak times (typically early morning when flights from North America and Asia converge on Heathrow) the elevators going down to train level are packed. To reach a train without using the elevator requires five levels of escalator. Then the short trains, like the elevators, have inadequate capacity and backups develop. Even then, it's not over: There are more escalators, up and down, to get to immigration in terminal T5A. The whole transit between terminals, not that far apart, can take twenty minutes.

For the fit and limber these hurdles are merely annoying. For the handicapped and elderly they are a serious deterrent to ever using Terminal 5 again. Once in a while, a flight from North America may get a gate in terminal T5A. When it does, the difference is startling: a simple, single level walk to immigration. It seems extraordinary that a new international terminal could have been conceived in a way that produces such a bottleneck as terminal T5B. It's hard to see, given the constraints of the physical layout, how it could be made better. More frequent shuttle trains, perhaps, and more elevators. But with the British Airports Authority keener on moving merchandise than passengers, that's unlikely. As the tenant with its reputation at stake, British Airways should insist on it.

Further reading:
* Another Wrinkle in the Dreamliner (Daily Traveler on CNT)
* Read The Daily Beast for more aviation expertise from Clive Irving, Condé Nast Traveler's senior consulting editor
* On the Fly: The Daily Traveler on the airline industry


As a frequent visitor to the UK, I must say the T5 terminal works fine for me. My biggest problem is returning to the Miami airport and its new terminal. Try giving that terminal a try. I am embarassed every time I return. The last time we waited for immigration for 30 min. with the excuse no one was there because they didn't expect us. Baggage is whole other nightmare!!

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