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.

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