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Heathrow's Terminal 5 — worth the wait

Image: Heathrow Terminal 5
Terminal 5's departure hall is very spacious and contains 96 metallic blue check-in kiosks. Located well inside the front doors, the kiosks have touch screens on which passengers enter their names, flight locator number, credit card information, or passport numbers to identify themselves. The kiosks then print out boarding passes.British Airways
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It is cavernous enough to hold 50 soccer fields, cost $8.6 billion to build and is designed to handle 30 million people a year.

It is the nearly completed Terminal 5 at Heathrow International Airport — the largest of London’s five major airports and long a cause of teeth-grinding frustration for travelers exasperated by chronic congestion, flight delays, lost baggage and often-notional customer service.

Plans for Terminal 5 were first mooted in the mid-1980s, and the airport's operator BAA sought planning permission in 1993 to develop the huge terminal on Heathrow's western perimeter. After eight years of bitter controversy and widespread opposition, including a four-year public inquiry that remains the longest in British history, the government eventually approved construction of Terminal 5 in 2001.

But when T-5, as the new building is dubbed, opens for business on March 27 with British Airways as its sole occupant, all that will be a thing of the past, BA executives promise. Before the official opening, BA showed off the new structure to visiting journalists.

Drop-dead gorgeous
The building — designed to be the prime aviation gateway to London and the United Kingdom —is drop-dead gorgeous. Rising 130 feet high and bathed in natural light, the glassy structure —designed by British ‘starchitect’ Richard Rogers — has floors of marble and hardwoods, panoramic windows, passenger lounges for first and business class flyers worthy of a 5-star hotel, no fewer than 112 shops ranging from luxury brands such as Tiffany to High Street pharmacy-chain favorite Boots, and restaurants galore. One of the latter, Gordon Ramsey Plane Food, is the handiwork of the bad-boy celebrity chef.

But will the new terminal work as advertised and replace the stress of travel with efficiency, even serenity, for air travelers? BA officials swear it will. Some 92 percent of BA’s Heathrow passengers will switch from terminals 1 and 4 to terminal 5 this spring. The remaining 8 percent, those using BA’s oneworld alliance partners such as American Airlines, will fly out of terminal 3 — itself being upgraded ahead of the 2012 London Olympics, as is much of Heathrow. BA flies between Heathrow and 15 U.S. cities, including New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Washington, D.C. and San Francisco.

"Our customers told us what they wanted, and we listened," says Robert Foley, BA’s commercial director. "We started with a blank sheet of paper."

The new terminal’s transit links are impressively multi-faceted. Terminal 5 is linked to central London by the London Underground’s Piccadilly line, by buses, by the Heathrow Express train to and from Paddington station, and by a new spur road from the M-25 motorway. It is the only Heathrow terminal to have direct access to the motorway. Driverless shuttles will join the main T-5 terminal with two satellite buildings nearby; shuttles are scheduled to depart every 90 seconds and the ride is expected to take 45 seconds.

Spacious departures hall
The first thing you notice about the departures area is how spacious it is. Well away from the front doors, the departing passenger is greeted with metallic blue check-in kiosks, 96 in number. You enter your specifics on a kiosk touch screen — name, flight locator number, credit card information, passport number and the like — and print out your boarding pass. BA estimates that 80 percent of passengers will either check-in on the terminal kiosks or will have checked-in earlier on the airline’s Web site. About 65 percent do so now.

This should speed up check-in considerably, BA executives say, putting an end to the epic queues that often snarl Heathrow now. On average, passengers will find just one person in front of them at a kiosk, if things go according to plan.

Terminal 5 also features 90-odd bag-drop stations that accept checked luggage and automatically whisk the bags onto 18 kilometers of moving tracks and belts. Bags zip along at up to 30 miles per hour on a system that updates prototypes used in Oslo, Hong Kong and Amsterdam airports. Lost baggage has been a headache at Heathrow and has often proved to be a problem for BA, the UK’s largest airline.

Next the departing flyer goes to airport security, clustered at the south and north ends of the quarter-mile-long main terminal. There are seven security desks and six X-ray machines at the south end. Security at the north end may prove faster, as that area, too, has seven desks but 12 X-ray machines.

Pre-flight shopping and relaxation
After clearing security, the traveler is free — indeed, is exhorted — to sip, nibble and shop on the way to the departure gates, none of which is more than six minutes walk from security. Some of the terminal’s signage was not in place in time for the pre-official-opening media tour, so there was no way to judge how easy it will be to find your way around the big building, but there is no missing the urgent rainbow of shop logos.

For travelers flying first or business class or who are gold card holders on BA or its partner airlines, the sky is the limit in the lounges. Arriving passengers have 100 showers and a posh spa to help them relax. Commissioned artworks, a Champagne bar, a business center with 32 wide-screen PCs (for first class) and fine-dining restaurant The Concorde Room await high-flyers, whether they are coming or going.

BA spent $125 million designing and gilding the terminal’s six lounges — located on T-5’s top level, the fifth floor — and it shows. An additional 9,000 comfortable-looking seats are available outside the premier passenger lounges and the entire terminal offers free Wi-Fi.