Heathrow's big day is terminal embarrassment

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The Independent Online

Eddie Loryman seemed oblivious to the grandeur of Heathrow's soaring new terminal 5 building with its cutting-edge architecture, Gordon Ramsay eateries and glittering designer outlets. Dragging two large suitcases, he was more concerned with finding a lift that was actually working.

Mr Loryman, who had caught the early-morning flight from Newcastle, had hoped to be relaxing in Las Palmas in time for dinner. Instead, after waiting nearly two and a half hours waiting for his luggage to be conveyed the 100 yards from his plane to the carousel where he and his fellow passengers were waiting, he had missed his connection.

Now he was hurrying to change terminals before flying to Barcelona, where he would have to board yet another flight to Tenerife arriving – barring any further delays – at his destination shortly before midnight.

"We have an old-fashioned piece of Geordie slang for places like this. We call them heaps of shite," he said angrily.

It was hardly the kind of ringing endorsement that British Airways and airport operator BAA had been hoping for yesterday when they opened the £4.3bn Heathrow Terminal 5 to paying customers.

Despite painstaking stage management, things began to unravel in spectacular fashion almost as soon as Captain Lynn Barton, BA's first woman pilot, landed her Boeing 747 from Hong Kong eight minutes early – the first to touch down at the controversial new hub.

Though the well-heeled passengers who were ushered out of business class to meet the assembled TV crews insisted they had just enjoyed their "best-ever flight", those bringing up an increasingly disenchanted rear were already complaining that they had fallen victim to what BA euphemistically insisted were "baggage performance issues". While it should have taken just 14 minutes to take bags off incoming planes and deposit them in the terminal, at the height of the meltdown yesterday it was taking up to three and a half hours.

As the delays lengthened with each new arrival, problems soon began to mount up in the departure lounge too, with BA, the sole user of the new terminal, forced to cancel 34 short-haul outward flights in order to cope with the chaos. At 11am, the sight of 350 environmental "flash mob" protesters stripping off to reveal red T-shirts bearing the slogan "Stop Airport Expansion" seemed like light relief to those who were waiting for loved ones to arrive.

At the root of the problem was BAA's much vaunted "state-of-the-art" baggage-handling system. With its 11 miles of conveyor belts, it is said to be able to cope with 12,000 bags an hour and provide the key to reversing the carrier's woeful reputation for losing luggage. Unfortunately for arriving passengers, among them Beatles record producer Sir George Martin and former Spurs boss Martin Jol, no one had told BA staff exactly how to log on the computer system.

By lunchtime BA was trying to put the best possible gloss on its ruined big day, insisting instead that it had – really – been praised by delighted customers and delays so far amounted to no more than a few "minor problems".

Those problems were only to be expected, a spokeswoman said, considering the challenges of coping with the 380 flights and 40,000 passengers using the terminal for the first time that day. But by last night, all baggage check-in had been suspended and passengers were being allowed to fly carrying only hand-luggage. Announcing the suspension of baggage check-in, Gareth Kirkwood, BA's director of operations, said: "We sincerely apologise to those customers who have suffered disrupted journeys or baggage delays."

Indeed, chief executive Willie Walsh's claim, made earlier in the day, that T5 would be "100 times better than anything else at Heathrow" was beginning to look like a sick joke as the carrier was forced to apologise for a catalogue of problems from lack of parking to the staff's apparent inability to navigate their way round the vast new building.

By the afternoon, a queue of more than 100 passengers was snaking its way back from the cancellation flights desk as people lined up to try to get away on other flights or get refunds. Some passengers simply asked BA to send on their luggage.

For both BA and BAA the opening of T5 was supposed to be the start of something better. For their many critics it was merely a case of service as normal.