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

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