Flightpath to nowhere

Last Saturday, Europe's biggest construction site underwent its first real test. Simon Calder was there to assess the Heathrow Terminal 5 experience

Nowhere man: that's me. Many passengers regard Heathrow airport as a necessary evil along the way to the world. Well, try going through all the processes at Europe's busiest airport in the full knowledge that you are going no further than the departure gate and back.

Amazingly, 2,000 of us have surrendered our Saturday morning to do just that. I am standing in a queue at Terminal 5 holding a boarding pass that announces me to be "Mr Lampoon Erasmus". I am pretending to be someone queuing up for a pretend flight inside a 4.3bn structure that will become the UK's busiest air terminal. We're all here to identify problems with Terminal 5 before it opens at 4am on 27 March next year.

A good few alarm clocks have been set for 4am in order to reach the airport area by nine. Enthusiasts have travelled from the furthest reaches of Essex and Hampshire to take part in the first big trial of these extremely expensive facilities. Terminal 5 represents the first proper advance in Heathrow's infrastructure in a generation. It will handle most British Airways flights, freeing up capacity in the rest of the airport.

The present haphazard collection of odd-shaped facilities in Terminals 1 to 4 has, this summer, earned the airport the tag of "national embarrassment". Terminal 2, still in daily use by Air France, Lufthansa and Alitalia, was opened by a very young and sprightly Queen in 1955.Right now I feel I have been queuing for about 52 years. Everyone on this morning's trial registered online, but lining up to sign in at the Marriott Hotel took half an hour. This was followed by another queue for a security search, before we had got anywhere near the new building.

On the bus ride to the steel-and-glass palace I read my instructions for the day. I was playing the part of Mr Erasmus, presumably a distant descendant of the Dutch theologian, "flying" to Nice aboard British Airways flight 9947. The fare shown is GBP0.00, which seems a fair price for a trip to nowhere. We flightless passengers all several Air Miles short of a real destination demonstrate another aspect of Britishness. After a warm-up act of orderly (if grumbly) queuing, we proudly present: class consciousness. Even though none of us is going near a real aircraft, a man at the back of the bus is gloating about being assigned a Club World ticket to New York. There are mutterings that he is an insider from BAA, the Spanish-owned company that is bringing the project in on time and on budget. BA, the only tenant, is investing only 330m prompting rivals' accusations that the airline has been "gifted" the new terminal.

Heathrow's other, constricted terminals cause claustrophobia; at Terminal 5 the sense is of openness and space, first bestowed on the approach up a long, curved ramp to the departures level. From here you get a fresh and spectacular view. To the west, you can peer into the Queen's back garden at Windsor (a lot quieter since Concorde was grounded); to the north, admire the green and not unpleasant lands that will be carpeted by concrete if Heathrow's third runway is built.

Terminal 5 was designed in the late 20th century (its late arrival is due to the longest planning inquiry in UK history) but walking into the cathedral-like check-in space feels pleasingly 21st-century, with little of the clutter of the paper ticket era.

Some clutter does remain: to the right, there is a huge pile of suitcases. Are they here to simulate the scene when the immensely complex baggage system fails? No, they are props for the purposes of today's exercise. My instructions require me to pick up and check in one bag. A four-year-old girl masquerading as Mr Moses Drummond en route to Moscow grabs a pink-and-purple case, while I settle for a black rollalong that turns out to be the one with a dodgy handle. When real life begins at Terminal 5, only one passenger in five is expected to eschew the automated options and instead use a check-in desk. I decide to be that awkward customer. A pleasant BA lady takes the broken bag, checks my meaningless ticket and genuine passport and issues a boarding pass for a flight that does not exist.

The road to nowhere turns out to be long and winding. The security staff prove polite and scrupulous, and the queue pleasingly short (though on a reasonably busy day, 100,000 passengers will pass through Terminal 5, rather than just 2,000).

"Airside", I descend a long escalator to the main departure level and some confusion. Signs to my assigned gate, A20, are hard to find, requiring rotation through 180 degrees to decipher the right direction. This, of course, is why we are here: afterwards, we are to report the faults we have detected.

Were I British Airways' chief executive, Willie Walsh, one significant problem I would report is the lack of branding for the airline. Everything is in "BAA yellow". Even retailers such as Boots and Thomas Cook are more evident than BA.

Gate A20 is a longish walk away, at the southern end of the terminal. We sit around, some of us feeling slightly foolish, others exploring as widely as the staff will allow. Finally the "flight" is called, with boarding strictly by row. A last check of my papers, and I walk down the long corridor to travel disappointment: at the end, we suddenly turn into arriving passengers, and make our mighty long way to the immigration area and the baggage hall. I sense a medical hand insisting on giving people a healthily extensive walk at the end of a long flight. The bare concrete and visible fittings at least give more space than the false ceilings at other Heathrow terminals, but the industrial look adds to the feeling of being mass-processed.

I attempt a joke with the Customs officials pretending to watch us exit the arrivals hall: "Is this where I hand over the drugs?" No, they didn't think it was funny, either.

Heathrow has long been a joke in international aviation circles. Terminal 5 is supposed to give us the last laugh. While Paris powers toward being the hub for continental Europe (Air France made a move this week to take over Alitalia, which would make it twice the size of BA), Dubai is turning a spare bit of desert into World Central International airport, with six runways and the ability to handle 120 million passengers a year.

In the crowded confines of West London, emerging from Customs is puzzling for passengers as I bet it will be for plenty of meeters-and-greeters. Effectively, there is a choice of two possible exits, with much potential for muddle.

Like the other 1,999 participants, I pick up a "goodie bag", containing a universal plug. One size fits all? Not at Terminal 5, unfortunately for British Airways. Travellers to Bangkok, Singapore and Sydney will find their Jumbo still awaits at Terminal 4 (later to be switched to Terminal 3). Nor is there room at the hi-tech inn for flights to Helsinki, Lisbon or my made-up destination, Nice. For your place in the Provencal sun, you will need to head for Terminal 1. Or 3, depending on the day. Heathrow is never easy, even when you are going nowhere.

Heathrow by numbers

1: airlines operating from Terminal 5; BA is the only tenant

2: active runways at Heathrow; the new building will have no effect on the number of aircraft the airport can handle, though BA hopes the new layout will improve punctuality

4: position of British Airways in global airline league table of number of international passengers carried; in third place, Air France; second, Lufthansa; and first, Ryanair

5: terminals at Heathrow from which BA-coded flights will depart next summer; at various times, BA passengers will find themselves in Terminals 1, 2, 3 and 4 as well as 5

10: potential wait, in minutes, in normal operating conditions, for a Tube train to central London from Terminal 5

50: football pitches covered by Terminal 5's "footprint"



55: percentage by which Heathrow currently exceeds its design capacity in terms of passengers

80: percentage of passengers expected to check in online or at one of the 96 self-service kiosks at Terminal 5



90: "fast" bag drops for self-service customers

140: shops and restaurants at Terminal 5

2,000: pieces of ground equipment that BA will move into Terminal 5 from Terminals 1-4 on the night of 26 March

6,500: BA staff given four days' training at Terminal 5



50,000: construction workers deployed on the project

35,000,000: passengers expected to use Terminal 5 each year by 2012; if numbers outgrow capacity as they have elsewhere at Heathrow, this would exceed 50 million

200,000,000: the cost, in pounds, of Terminal 4, opened 21 years ago by the Prince and Princess of Wales

4,300,000,000: the cost of building Terminal 5

The Independent travel offers: Discover a world of inspiring destinations

News
Alan Bennett has criticised the “repellent” reality shows which dominate our screens
tvBut he does like Stewart Lee
Life and Style
The Google Doodle celebrating the start of the first day of autumn, 2014.
tech
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black and Ed Stoppard as her manager Brian Epstein
tvCilla Episode 2 review: Grit under the glamour in part two of biopic series starring Sheridan Smith
Sport
David Moyes and Louis van Gaal
football
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
i100
Life and Style
Vote with your wallet: the app can help shoppers feel more informed about items on sale
lifeNew app reveals political leanings of food companies
News
Former Governor of Alaska Sarah Palin, left, with her daughter, Bristol
newsShe's 'proud' of eldest daughter, who 'punched host in the face'
Sport
New Zealand fly-half Aaron Cruden pictured in The Zookeeper's Son on a late-night drinking session
rugby
Arts and Entertainment
Salmond told a Scottish television chat show in 2001that he would also sit in front of a mirror and say things like,
tvCelebrity Trekkies from Alex Salmond to Barack Obama
Life and Style
Carol O'Brien, whose son Rob suffered many years of depression
healthOne mother's story of how London charity Maytree helped her son with his depression
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Arts and Entertainment
The cover of Dark Side of the Moon
musicCan 'The Endless River' carry on the tradition? See for yourself
Life and Style
food + drink
News
Rob Merrick's Lobby Journalists were playing Ed Balls' Labour Party MPs. The match is an annual event which takes place ahead of the opening of the party conference
newsRob Merrick insistes 'Ed will be hurting much more than me'
News
A cabin crew member photographed the devastation after one flight
news
Voices
A new app has been launched that enables people to have a cuddle from a stranger
voicesMaybe the new app will make it more normal to reach out to strangers
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Affiliate Marketing Manager / Affiliate Manager

    £50 - 60k (DOE): Guru Careers: An Affiliate Marketing Manager / Affiliate Mana...

    IT Administrator - Graduate

    £18000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: ***EXCELLENT OPPORTUNITY FO...

    USA/Florida Travel Consultants £30-50k OTE Essex

    Basic of £18,000 + commission, realistic OTE of £30-£50k : Ocean Holidays: Le...

    Marketing Executive / Member Services Exec

    £20 - 26k + Benefits: Guru Careers: A Marketing Executive / Member Services Ex...

    Day In a Page

    Secret politics of the weekly shop

    The politics of the weekly shop

    New app reveals political leanings of food companies
    Beam me up, Scottie!

    Beam me up, Scottie!

    Celebrity Trekkies from Alex Salmond to Barack Obama
    Beware Wet Paint: The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition

    Beware Wet Paint

    The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition
    Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

    Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

    Can 'The Endless River' carry on the tradition?
    Sanctuary for the suicidal

    Sanctuary for the suicidal

    One mother's story of how London charity Maytree helped her son with his depression
    A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

    Not That Kind of Girl:

    A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
    London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

    London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

    In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
    Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

    Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

    Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
    Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

    Model mother

    Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
    Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

    Apple still the coolest brand

    Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
    Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

    Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

    Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
    Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

    Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

    The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
    The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

    Scrambled eggs and LSD

    Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
    'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

    'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

    Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
    Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

    New leading ladies of dance fight back

    How female vocalists are now writing their own hits