BA's Terminal 5: 'Everybody will be wowed'

Airline strives for flight punctuality and minimal luggage loss in new building.

ba terminal 4 224.88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
ba terminal 4 224.88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
British Airways is promising to become one of the world's most punctual airlines with an ability to speedily process a record number of passengers - and their luggage - when its new, state-of-the-art terminal opens next month. Today, only a third of BA flights take off on time and 60 to 70 out of 1,000 bags are lost - almost double that of most airline companies. But with the new terminal comes the dual promise of punctuality and efficiency. On March 27, 90 percent of BA's flights are scheduled to move to Heathrow's Terminal 5 (already known as T5), which will be solely occupied by the national airline. "Everybody will be wowed," one of BA's chiefs declared, "when they visit one of the busiest airports in the world and feel like they are visiting a five-star hotel." When The Jerusalem Post was given an advance peak at the new interior of the terminal recently, one could already feel a buzz in the air as workers prepared for the big day. At Waterside, the BA headquarters in Heathrow, a countdown to the grand opening of T5 was displayed on large screens and posters, as photographs of it hung across the building. T5 has taken 16 years to build. For nine years, it waited for government permits. They were finally received in 2001, and after another seven years of planning and construction, BA now pledges to provide a sophisticated, 21st century terminal to make Britons proud. The new building was designed to be a soothing place of work, with lots of light coming through the glass. On the day that we - a group of six journalists from Israel, Germany and Portugal - visited T5, thousands of suitcases were placed in front of the bag-drop desks as part of a streamlining exercise. The terminal boasts easy access, fast and frequent public transportation to and from central London, 4,000 underground parking spots and a fast check-in and bag-dropping route. Among the challenges T5's architects faced were BA's desire to restore punctuality and shake off its reputation for luggage loss. Although looking toward the future with its ultra-modern technology, the company seeks a return to the good old days when flights took off on time, passengers claimed their luggage soon after landing, and they did not have to wait in line for stringent security checks. To rectify the current situation, the entire terminal was designed to minimize the time passengers spend standing in line to check in and undergo a security examination. Aircraft parked close to the building promise to shorten the time it takes a plane to pull away from its stand, and clear a spot for another plane getting ready to take off. The new baggage system promises to enable the transfer of luggage to aircraft within 15 minutes after drop-off at one of the desks. The airline said it would take between 20 and 35 minutes to claim baggage after the plane landed. The British Airports Authority and BA said they had invested a lot of money and time in installing a "smart baggage system" that can handle 12,000 suitcases per hour, even though they expect only 7,500 bags per hour in the beginning. The company hopes to significantly improve on the bag-loss average of international airlines - 31 out of 1,000 cases - and approach as close to zero as possible. To restore BA's once prestigious status, T5's designers - Rogers, Stirk, Harbour & Partners - aim to provide the 30 million travelers the airline says it can handle annually with a relaxing experience, despite the fact that they will be passing through the busiest airport in Europe. At a cost of 4.3 billion pounds invested mainly by the British Airports Authority, T5 hopes to live up to its new slogan: "Relax in our new amazing home." T5's five-story main building is five times the size of Terminal 4 - BA's current base. And yet it strives to be linear, logical and easy to navigate. BA anticipates that some 80% of its customers will use the online check-in service or one of the 96 self-service stands situated in the departures hall. From there, passengers can move swiftly to one of the 96 fast bag-drop desks after they themselves weigh their luggage, limited to 23 kilograms per customer. Travelers then approach the security check point, where most should not encounter any problems, due to advanced scanning technology. BA has set a ground rule for passengers to be at the security check-in 35 minutes before their flight departs to avoid delays in schedule. If they don't, they won't be allowed to board. After passing the security check-in, which is followed by a hand-luggage automatic scanning machine, passengers enter T5's impressive new Duty Free section, with shops, restaurants, lounges and even spas. On March 27, two main buildings will be inaugurated: 5A will provide the gates for domestic flights; an underground transit system will move 6,500 passengers per hour at a speed of 30 miles an hour to 5B, where international flights will take off. A third building - 5C - which will be connected underground as well, is scheduled to open in May 2010. Both 5A and 5B will offer passengers 200,000 sq. feet of retail area, containing 112 stores and restaurants, including some of the best known international chains. Fast-food chains that deep fry have been barred from T5, not for ideological reasons but because the terminal is not equipped with an appropriate ventilation system. Premium passengers will be offered the opportunity to spend quality time in one of six beautiful lounges within 5A and 5B. The lounges, called "galleries," are capable of hosting up to 2,500 people. Among other services offered are wine and champagne bars, fresh meals prepared on the spot, health spas with shower facilities and leisure areas. T5 has its detractors, however, who claim that the enormous project will increase pollution, expand planes' emissions and increase waste disposal. Jonathan Counsell, the head of Terminal 5 development, said in response that BA took environmental concerns seriously. He noted that the UK placed environmental standards on construction, requiring new facilities to minimize both air pollution and noise. Counsell said that four main environmental concerns had been taken into consideration in T5's master plan: the type of construction, and the use of materials, water and energy. He said a super-strength concrete was used for construction, which means less material was consumed and 60,000 tons of carbon dioxide were saved. T5 is equipped with a self-sufficient power plant called "Existing Heathrow Energy," which is slated to provide 85% of the terminal's heat - an initiative which promises to save the emission of 11,000 tons of carbon dioxide a year. Reducing the need for artificial lighting, the terminal has mostly glass sides, while the south side of the building has angled louvres designed to prevent overheating during the summer. The cooling system reuses water for air conditioning. The terminal is shaped to enable collection of rainwater, which promises to save 70% in water usage annually. As aircraft arrive at one of the 63 stands, they will be attached to an air-pumping system and to electrical power units to enable them to shut down their engines and reduce unnecessary emissions. The writer was a guest of British Airways.