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.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Travel
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
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

    Guru Careers: Events Coordinator / Junior Events Planner

    £24K + Excellent Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking an Events Coordinator ...

    Royal Yachting Association Cymru Wales: Chief Executive Officer

    Salary 42,000: Royal Yachting Association Cymru Wales: The CEO is responsible ...

    Guru Careers: Marketing Manager / Marketing Communications Manager

    £35-40k (DOE) + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Marketing Communicati...

    Ashdown Group: Technical IT Manager - North London - Growing business

    £40000 - £50000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A growing business that has been ope...

    Day In a Page

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study

    One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
    From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

    Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

    'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
    'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

    Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

    This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

    Songs from the bell jar

    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
    How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

    One man's day in high heels

    ...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
    The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

    King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

    The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

    End of the Aussie brain drain

    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
    Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

    Can meditation be bad for you?

    Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
    Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

    Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

    Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine
    Letterman's final Late Show: Laughter, but no tears, as David takes his bow after 33 years

    Laughter, but no tears, as Letterman takes his bow after 33 years

    Veteran talkshow host steps down to plaudits from four presidents
    Ivor Novello Awards 2015: Hozier wins with anti-Catholic song 'Take Me To Church' as John Whittingdale leads praise for Black Sabbath

    Hozier's 'blasphemous' song takes Novello award

    Singer joins Ed Sheeran and Clean Bandit in celebration of the best in British and Irish music
    Tequila gold rush: The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product

    Join the tequila gold rush

    The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product
    12 best statement wallpapers

    12 best statement wallpapers

    Make an impact and transform a room with a conversation-starting pattern
    Paul Scholes column: Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?

    Paul Scholes column

    Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?