Simon Calder: Heathrow's Terminal 2, barely powered up and it's unfit for the job

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The Independent Travel

No large structure is as vulnerable to built-in obsolescence as an airport terminal. When Heathrow's Terminal 5 was first planned, online check-in was still a decade away. Accordingly, BA's home has an impressive front-of-house array of check-in desks that are rarely fully staffed because many passengers bypass them. Meanwhile, backstage, a couple of cramped security channels struggle to meet peak demand.

In contrast, the airport's magnificent new Terminal 2 is a giant security search area with a couple of runways attached. But it now turns out that we seem to be approaching the end of the era of "central search", with new US and UK demands for further searches at the gate.

Passengers may well be baffled by the dizzying and sometimes contradictory messages that have emerged in the past 10 days about luggage and pluggage. It began with the US Transportation Security Administration (TSA) warning of an impending attempt at downing a transatlantic jet. The plot is said to involve a suicide bomber smuggling aboard explosives concealed in electronic gear such as a laptop, tablet computer or e-reader. We were even told the bomb-makers' smartphone brands of choice: the Apple iPhone and Samsung Galaxy.

As a consequence, before a passenger is allowed aboard a US-bound jet, their electronic gear must be powered up in order to convince security staff that it does what it says on the box.

By Wednesday morning, passengers on every international flight from the UK were warned by the Department for Transport that they might face the same checks. As is so often the way with nuanced changes in the airport regime, plenty of passengers – and elements of the media – grabbed the wrong end of the security wand. The idea took hold variously that it would apply to all passengers on all flights, or that a random selection of travellers would be picked out for closer scrutiny. The mandatory switch-on will apply only to some flights, but to all passengers on those designated departures.

For the check that I shall term a "volt face," plenty of space is required. By my reckoning, T2 ("The Queen's Terminal," as it is subtitled) lasted 10 days between its official opening and the implementation of new rules that rendered it unfit for purpose. On 23 June, Her Majesty proclaimed the new £2.5bn building powered up and ready for take-off. On 3 July, US Homeland Security Secretary, Jeh Johnson, proclaimed that anyone flying to the US will undergo extra checks before they step aboard – including powering up those electronic devices.

From what I have seen, T2 is poorly equipped for applying an additional layer of security at the gate. Older parts of Heathrow, notably Terminal 3, have an enclosed holding area for each departure. But ultra-modern Terminal 2 was built with a free-flow approach, with no big barriers.

The typical procedure is that you go and sit in the general area around the gate until the flight is called. The boarding pass/passport check is made at the start of the airbridge, and you step aboard: passenger friendly, but not ideal for the new security regime. Given the new rule on having juice in phones, computers and e-readers, the ideal departure area would have a bank of mains sockets, preferably in a range of styles including the weird culs-de-sac of electrical evolution favoured in Switzerland and South Africa.

The second requirement is a cordon sanitaire to give security staff the room they need to focus on the passengers and possessions on a specific flight. Terminal 2 has many fine attributes, but abundant pluggage and holding areas are not among them.

What does the airport have to say? Not much. A Heathrow spokesperson said: "We do not comment on security measures."

Don't ask us

Some folk are worried about the number of laws said to be imposed on Britain by the European Commission, but in matters aeronautical the Americans hold sway. Homeland Security Secretary Johnson's exact words when he brought in tighter checks were: "I have directed TSA to implement enhanced security measures in the coming days at certain overseas airports with direct flights to the US."

Now, all airport security issues in the UK are the responsibility of the Department for Transport, not Washington. Yet the US evidently feels it can call the shots on aviation security worldwide. Ross Feinstein, a TSA spokesman, says: "TSA does not conduct screening operations outside the United States. But we can mandate certain requirements". The US has a highly effective bargaining chip. If a foreign nation does not accede to its request for heightened security, the planes will remain grounded.

Blame it on Rio

World Cup winners? Britain's travel trade. After the England football team's ignominious exit from the tournament, the industry journal TTG trumpeted the boost in bookings with a headline that read: "Trade rejoices as England prepare to head home." The story began: "Agents have told TTG of their delight at the failure of the England team to make it to the second round of the global championship, with bookings and enquiries rocketing."

Ahead of tomorrow night's final in Rio, Britain's airport operators are equally exuberant. Darren Caplan, the CEO of the Airport Operators' Association, told members the booking surge was so strong that "We are developing official AOA policy for two and four years' time to campaign for quick exits for UK domestic teams at the European Championship and World Cup."