Day one at Terminal 5 – a survivor's tale

Beautiful building, shame about the chaos. But Travel Editor Kate Simon remains optimistic
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The Independent Travel

The chaos that hit the opening of Terminal 5 last Thursday seems best described as "meltdown". As problems persisted – the headache that British Airways had hoped its new Heathrow home would cure – the delays turned into cancellations and baggage check-in was finally suspended.

Worse still, queues filled the check-in hall as the much vaunted state-of-the-art luggage system ground to a halt, unable to live up to its promise of shifting 12,000 bags an hour, a spectre that BA had hoped Lord Rogers' radical linear design would prevent. The airline's claim that it would finally put customers in control of their travel was looking increasingly unachievable as some passengers were forced to bed down for the night in the check-in hall.

Yet, when BA and airport operator BAA finally sort out these rather daunting "teething" problems, they will have an extraordinary building in which to persuade us that a trip through an airport can be an enjoyable part of a journey. There is no doubt that T5's vast glass and steel structure, which at every turn maximises the use of light and space, with the added bonus of views of the airfield and London beyond, is the antithesis of its labyrinthine older neighbours, which we all so love to hate. Wherever you stand on the argument about the necessity of a new terminal at Heathrow, T5's virtue is in offering a vision of a far more pleasant place from which to fly.

If BA can train its staff properly in how to operate the systems in the new terminal – one of the failures that appear to be at the root of Thursday's chaos – T5's merits may not be confined to how it looks. Lord Rogers has taken a rectangular box and calculated the most efficient way of passing from one side to the other – by using its width. So, passengers arriving in the check-in hall are met by ranks of check-in kiosks (96 in total), fast bag drop facilities and customer service desks (more than 100), with the aim that they will only converge at the point at which they must pass through one of the two security areas to reach the departure lounge.

Arriving at the airport for one of the first flights on Thursday, the 7.20am to Paris, I was early enough to gain a positive experience of that check-in process; it took just 14 minutes to check in a bag; show my passport and boarding card; pass my hand luggage through the scanners (more sophisticated kit means no need for mass removal of shoes); and enter the open-plan, multi-level departure lounge.

If the initial problems are solved, BA may succeed in enabling the 30 million passengers projected to pass through T5 each year to move more swiftly to the planes and realise its 21st-century vision of air travel.

Yet there are other problems the airline needs to solve. With many of its flights still dispersed across Heathrow's other terminals for at least another year, there is the issue of transferring passengers with onward flights out of T5. Moira and Dave from Lytham St Anne's were among the passengers arriving on a flight from Singapore into T4 on Thursday morning and fell foul of the airport staff's confusion about how to switch customers between terminals.

"We got shepherded into an area with 100 others all trying to get on to a bus to T5," Dave explained. "When we finally got on, the bus took 18 minutes to get here and then dropped us off at Arrivals. We found our way to Departures, but then we had to pass through three more checkpoints, including having our photos taken [a security requirement for domestic passengers]. We thought we would arrive in a shiny new, well-signposted terminal, but our first impressions have been poor."

However, if you're going to have to wait around longer for your plane to leave it might as well be in T5. The departure lounge has comfortable seating areas and internet access, and premium customers get ushered towards six smart lounges with all the frills. Then there are all those retail diversions. T5 is a veritable shopping mall, a key revenue-earner for BAA, with high-street stalwarts such as HMV and WH Smith rubbing shoulders with quality names including Prada, Smythson and Harrod's, and refreshments provided by the likes of Gordon Ramsay's new venture, Plane Food, and the trendy sushi purveyor Itsu.

What T5 won't overcome is the opposition of environmentalists and other pressure groups to its very existence. Friends of the Earth, which has opposed the building of the terminal since it was proposed almost two decades ago, issued a statement last week demanding that "the opening of Terminal 5 must mark the end of airport expansion in Britain". And the environmental protest group Plane Stupid successfully pulled off a "flash mob" in Arrivals on Thursday morning, when 350 protesters revealed striking red T-shirts emblazoned with the plea "Stop Airport Expansion".

As these arguments rumbled on and BA tried to get its new terminal back on track, I was rearranging my return journey from Paris to London. With the chaos inevitably extending overnight to the siting of BA's planes, there was only one solution: to make my way to another new terminal, the Eurostar hub at St Pancras International.