Queen Elizabeth II opened Heathrow Airport’s gleaming new Terminal 5 on Friday in a first step toward reviving the dingy, overcrowded facilities at the world’s busiest international airport.
The queen and her husband, Prince Philip, toured the light-filled structure, which will begin operating on March 27 with the arrival of a British Airways flight from Hong Kong.
“Looking around this bright and airy space with its clean, efficient layout, I am sure that many millions of travelers will have reason to be appreciative of the thought and care that has gone into the design, construction and ongoing maintenance of this significant new terminal,” the queen said.
The new facility promises a much-improved experience for travelers who have endured frequent delays at the four other Heathrow terminals, which have been operating at far above their intended capacity for years.
The airport had been designed to handle 45 million passengers per year and has struggled with record passenger numbers that have risen to 68 million per year. Combined with the added security procedures of recent years, transiting the airport has become a slow and unpleasant process for many.
The old terminals are generally viewed as drab, cramped spaces with little natural light. The new facility is designed to be “flooded” with light, officials said, and also to offer an open view of the airfield and the countryside beyond.
Transportation Secretary Ruth Kelly said the new building would improve London’s image with travelers worldwide.
“It is destined to become one of London’s most iconic transport buildings,” she said at the opening ceremony. “Terminal 5 is a bold statement of intent for Heathrow’s future. It sends out a message that together we are working to make Heathrow a world-class airport again.”
She said airport operator BAA plans to follow Terminal 5 with a multibillion dollar investment in the replacement and refurbishment of the airport’s other terminals. BAA is owned by Spanish construction Grupo Ferrovial SA.
The five-year, $8.6 billion facility faces stiff opposition from environmental groups and politicians representing London boroughs near the airport who complain it will lead to more flights — and more pollution — at Heathrow.
The green groups, which have been able to break through security perimeters at Heathrow in the past, are expected to mount protests when the terminal starts operating this month.
Officials from British Airways, which will have exclusive use of the new terminal, vowed passengers will be able to clear security within 10 minutes of walking into the building, which would be a substantial improvement over the current system.
It is designed to handle 30 million passengers per year.
The queen’s decision to open Terminal 5 personally — just as she opened the airport’s first passenger terminal in 1955 — reflects the importance of the new building.
Officials pledged the new baggage-handling facility and other systems would be in perfect order from day one, so that the launch of the new terminal would not be bedeviled by the problems that have marred other recent airport openings.
The inefficient baggage-handling system at Heathrow’s existing terminals has been a major logjam for travelers; officials said the new Terminal 5 system will be able to handle 12,000 bags per hour.
The British government faces growing opposition from environmental activists and local councils determined to prevent BAA from substantially expanding its Heathrow flight operations by building a third runway.
John Stewart, a spokesman with Stop Heathrow Expansion, said the group objects to the opening of Terminal 5 because the extra terminal capacity will allow BAA to add roughly 80,000 flights per year without building a third runway.
“We believe that the main motivation for building Terminal 5 is to bring in more planes, not to help the travelers have a better experience,” he said. “That is our objection.”
Heathrow handles more international flights than any other airport, although Atlanta’s Hartsfield International and Chicago’s O’Hare handle more flights in total, according to the Airports Council International in Geneva.