Simon Calder: Terminal 5 is a breathtaking display of institutional hubris

BA's botched Terminal 5 opening is sadly typical of Britain's transport system

The destinations may have been different – Norway and South Africa rather than Norfolk and Suffolk – but the breathtakingly botched opening of Heathrow Terminal 5 was the week's second example of corporate complacency in the face of transport meltdown.

On Tuesday, the over-running engineering works that have lately become a bank holiday tradition brought rail gridlock to East Anglia. By Thursday, the "T5" debacle had redefined institutional hubris. At the end of a humiliating week, a nation that has historically produced some outstanding travellers is now synonymous with inertia, not mobility.

"Inquire airline" proved the most popular destination on the departures boards at Terminal 5 yesterday afternoon. The only airline, of course, is British Airways, which deployed the vague phrase in preference to the more accurate "your BA flight's been cancelled, pal, and you're going nowhere". Yet until the first passengers had the temerity to turn up and expect to be transported along with their luggage to their chosen destination, there had been nothing imprecise in the claims about the T5 experience – and, in particular, the world's most expensive baggage system: "Extensive and repeated testing of the system by BA has taken place for six months," trilled the publicity, "to make sure it is in full operation readiness when T5 opens for business."

Operationally, Terminal 5 has not proved much more disastrous than the pre-Olympic fiasco of Athens (where Olympic Airways boarding passes referred passengers to gates at the old airport) and the travails of Bangkok's airport (parts of which have been sinking into the mud east of the Thai capital). The difference is: the unqualified assurances by BA's boss to prospective travellers.

When Stelios Haji-Ioannou started easyJet in 1995, his policy was simple: "Under-promise and over-deliver." All he offered was a flight from London to Glasgow for £29; if you got a smile and an on-time arrival, so much the better. British Airways and its Spanish-owned landlord, BAA, have turned that maxim on its head. They promised the best aviation experience since the Wright Brothers, and got it dismally wrong.

The failure to provide thousands of travellers with the most basic requirement of an airport, to allow them to fly, has divertedattention from some of the other foibles of Terminal 5. Arriving passengers who wish to check in for an onward flight are required to travel down two levels to the Underground station before ascending five floors to departures, all in lifts that have no call buttons to push from the outside, nor floor numbers to push once inside.

Ironically, the debacle at Terminal 5 has helped the rest of the airport function more efficiently. Although some terminals have been fuller than usual due to refugees from T5, the fact that BA cancelled an average of three departures and three arrivals an hour during the day eased pressure on the apron and in the skies.

The essential amateurish nature of our transport enterprises was made clear at 4am yesterday. I went to a bus stop in central London to catch the 4am bus to Heathrow so I could hopefully meet some of the staff and talk to them. The bus did not show up. But in a very British way we queued in the rain for a bus that did not come to try to reach an airport terminal that did not work.

Upset, resentful and baffled: that sums up not just the tens of thousands of passengers whose plans were wrecked in the first two days of Terminal 5 "live", but also the hundreds of staff in the front line. British Airways has its work cut out to patch up relations with its employees, never mind its customers.

At the end of April, the stresses on T5 will double when many intercontinental flights from Terminal 4 are switched. Yet even when all the moves are completed, a significant proportion of transit travellers will still face tortuous inter-terminal connections: Sydney, Singapore, Lisbon, Helsinki and other notable cities are excluded from the new facility. Indeed, one irony about this Spanish-owned piece of infrastructure (BAA is part of Ferrovial) is that you can go to a dozen countries around Europe – but not Spain; if you have a ticket to Madrid or Barcelona, you need to be at Terminal 1. Or 2. Or 3. Life at Heathrow seems destined never to be easy.

Lord Rogers' elegant steel-and-glass gateway to the skies could have amazed the world. But the chance was lost, and instead the airport, city and nation have amused the world.

sportWWE latest including Sting vs Triple H, Brock Lesnar vs Roman Reigns and The Undertaker vs Bray Wyatt
Arts and Entertainment
Louis Theroux: By Reason of Insanity takes him behind the bars again
tvBy Reason of Insanity, TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Cassetteboy's latest video is called Emperor's New Clothes rap
videoThe political parody genius duo strike again with new video
Arts and Entertainment
tvPoldark, TV review
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
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
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

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

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    SFL Group: Video Project Manager

    £24,000 pa, plus benefits: SFL Group: Looking for a hard-working and self-moti...

    Recruitment Genius: Hotel Reservations Assistant - French Speaking

    £16000 - £17000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This rapidly expanding travel c...

    Recruitment Genius: Duty Manager - World-Famous London Museum

    £24000 - £28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Do you have a strong record of ...

    Recruitment Genius: Personal Assistant

    £24000 - £28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: You will have demonstrable unde...

    Day In a Page

    Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

    Promises, promises

    But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
    The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

    The death of a Gaza fisherman

    He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
    Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
    Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

    The only direction Zayn could go

    We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
    Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

    Spells like teen spirit

    A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
    Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
    Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

    Licence to offend in the land of the free

    Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
    From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

    From farm to fork in Cornwall

    One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
    Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

    Robert Parker interview

    The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor
    How to make your own Easter egg: Willie Harcourt-Cooze shares his chocolate recipes

    How to make your own Easter egg

    Willie Harcourt-Cooze talks about his love affair with 'cacao' - and creates an Easter egg especially for The Independent on Sunday
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef declares barbecue season open with his twist on a tradtional Easter Sunday lamb lunch

    Bill Granger's twist on Easter Sunday lunch

    Next weekend, our chef plans to return to his Aussie roots by firing up the barbecue
    Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

    Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

    The England prop relives the highs and lows of last Saturday's remarkable afternoon of Six Nations rugby
    Cricket World Cup 2015: Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?

    Cricket World Cup 2015

    Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?
    The Last Word: Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing