Heathrow 2008: Terminal Velocity

Work continues apace as Heathrow prepares for 2008. By Dan Poole
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The Independent Online

Heathrow Terminal 5 is going to be big news, and not just because it will be roughly four times the size of Terminal 4, and each of its five levels are the equivalent size of 10 football pitches. Terminal 5 is set to completely change the expectations that passengers have of their experience at a UK airport, from checking-in right through to sitting comfortably in the departure lounge.

British Airways is expected to move in on March 30, 2008. The terminal will actually consist of three buildings: the main terminal and then two "satellite" terminals, called T5B and T5C. T5B will also open in 2008, with T5C expected to be fully operational by 2011. Ultimately they will all be linked by underground shuttle trains - a welcome service when you consider that the whole site covers a massive 260,000sq m!

British Airways predicts that 80 per cent of passengers flying from Heathrow will be checking-in online. Another new addition will be 96 self-service check-in machines and fast bag-drops at the airport. But if you run into problems, or don't know how to use the self-service machines, there will still be staff around to help you out.

The terminal needs to be capable of handling 30 million customers per year, so these advances are crucial. With this in mind, the baggage system has also been updated. No longer will it be a case of putting your luggage on a conveyor belt next to a check-in desk and seeing it whisked away. Instead luggage will be loaded into a lift and lowered into the high-tech baggage system, which will be able to move through 12,000 bags an hour over 18km of baggage belts.

A total of £4.2bn has been invested in building Terminal 5, so as well as all the new technology, you'd hope that it's going to look good too. Geoff Want, the director of ground operations for British Airways in the UK and overseas, is confident that it will. "As you walk into the building, especially the departures concourse, the wow factor hits you - the architecture is incredible. It's very open, and very light and airy." That is in no small part down to the 20,000sq m of reinforced glass that glazes the 43m high and 440m long main concourse.

"It's an exciting terminal," says Want. "The first satellite building is now structurally complete, and you can see what it's going to look like - they're still fitting out lounges and shops and that type of thing. It's an incredibly interesting concept with the sense of space you have and I think it will have a real impact on the travelling public."

Those lounges are worthy of an extra mention. First class passengers will be pampered in the Concorde Room, club class will also have a space to themselves and silver executive card holders will have their own lounge to recline in too. The main lounge looks out over the Surrey Hills and an outdoor terrace.

There will be no time for staff to sit down though, as they get used to the new system. A number of events - dubbed "Fit for 5" - have been run to prepare them for the move. The working conditions are expected to be much better, and Want is confident that it will all go smoothly. "There's bound to be apprehension, but we are working closely with our staff to go through all the differences in work practices.

"My job will be simplifed too. It will allow us to deliver a level of customer service that I and my colleagues will be really proud of, and it is fantastic to be associated with something as new as this."

Want also feels that staff, and the airline as a whole, will benefit from all being under one roof. "We're moving as much of the operation as we can into T5 but we can't get all of it in there until the second satellite opens, so there will be a small overflow of some services into Terminal 3 initially.

"There are enormous benefits in not having the split operation that you have at the moment with Terminal 1 and Terminal 4, in terms of aircraft integration and common standards of staffing. Most other European carriers have had their own terminals almost since their inception, so BA was the last carrier to get its own home at its hub airport."

Now that it has though, it's all systems go. Geoff sees parallels with another exciting project in the UK. "This is important to BAA, BA and the UK. With its opening in 2008 it will be iconic as the precursor to a successful Olympics in 2012, and that is very much in our minds." Gold medal for T5!