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Simon Calder

Simon Calder: Is Heathrow being timid, or just realistic?


Last time Heathrow unveiled a shiny new terminal, triumph turned to disaster within minutes.

Terminal 5 had taken 19 years from conception, via an interminable planning inquiry, to completion. British Airways, the sole tenant, was so keen to share the benefits of the £4.3bn structure with passengers that it chose a “big bang” approach, moving a large tranche of its existing operation from other terminals to the new facility from day one: 27 March, 2008.

“We’re ready, so bring it on,” boasted the front page of British Airways News the week before the public opening. But the new terminal did not survive first contact with passengers. As staff, baggage and IT systems unravelled, hundreds of flights were cancelled, tens of thousands of journeys were wrecked and millions of pounds were lost by BA and the owners of Heathrow.

On Wednesday, Heathrow has a chance to get it right. Terminal 2, subtitled “The Queen’s Terminal”, is a candidate for most-challenging building project ever. While the construction site for “T5” was at the western end of the airport, with plenty of room to manoeuvre, the old T2 had to be demolished and a bigger, brighter terminal resurrected in the middle of Europe’s busiest airport. No pause in operations was sanctioned, and strict rules applied on everything from the height of cranes to the Berlin Wall-like separation between “landside” and “airside”.

The challenge was like getting dressed with arms and legs bound. But they managed it, and the results are impressive. There is far more space than in the half-century-old terminal it replaces. A vast security search area at its heart aims to make the whole messy process of frisking passengers and screening their hand baggage a bit easier and quicker. This should free up more “dwell time,” allowing passengers to spend cash at John Lewis, Gucci or the pub, London’s Pride, which serves ... London Pride.

United, but alone

When I turned out as a volunteer to help test the T2 system, the duties did not, regrettably, include assessing how well London Pride travels from the Fuller’s brewery just down the A4 at Chiswick. I was one of thousands of pretend passengers with imaginary baggage, helping to identify glitches (and I hope they’ve fixed some shocking wayfinding). But for most of the summer, the vast, expensive facility will be almost a ghost terminal, with only a fraction of the planned passenger numbers passing through.

Unlike T5, Terminal 2 is home to 26 airlines, the vast majority members of the Star Alliance. Yet on opening day, just one will move in: United, which flies from a range of US cities. For a fortnight, the airline will be in the bizarre position of having its own terminal at the world’s most desirable international airport. The shops and restaurants can’t expect brilliant business: the first flight out, to Washington, is at 7.30am; the last, to Newark, departs at 6pm. That is hardly a footfall dream for high-end retailers.

Star’s big-hitters, including Lufthansa, SAS and Singapore Airlines, will not be allowed in until the autumn. Their passengers will have a poorer experience than they might, especially if they are connecting to Star Alliance airlines that have made the move to T2. The project is overseen by John Holland-Kaye, Heathrow’s chief executive-designate. I put it to him that the airport is being too timid about the opening, an over-reaction to the T5 shambles. He disagrees:

“One of our biggest airlines [United] is going to be operational on the first day. And we’re going to have 10 per cent of all the flights operating on the first day. So all those passengers are going to have a great experience. We think having a single  airline, at scale, is a good way of doing it.”

The big squeeze goes on

By November, when all 26 airlines have moved in, how much capacity will T2 add to Heathrow?

None. The constraint on Europe’s busiest airport has nothing to do with terminal facilities. It is the legal maximum of aircraft movements allowed on Heathrow’s two runways: 480,000 a year, a figure ordained by the government to limit the impact on local communities. Not one additional landing nor take-off will be sanctioned as a result of the new terminal. Until or unless a third runway is added, the only way to fit more people into Heathrow is to use larger aircraft, or at least get more passengers on board existing planes. Malcolm Ginsberg, editor in chief of Business Travel News, has crunched some numbers. He calculates that the average aircraft capacity at Heathrow in June will be 194 seats, far higher than the airport’s European rivals. Currently, 164 passengers are being carried on the average flight, which gives an 82-per-cent “load factor” – excellent by international standards.

How about some bigger planes? Strange as it may seem, Heathrow has no control over how its most valuable assets, slots, are used. So KLM, which has enjoyed a tasty wad of slots since the dawn of time, can deploy a cheerful little Fokker with only 80 seats on Heathrow-Amsterdam flights. This month, Qatar Airways launched an all-business-class Airbus A319 night flight to Doha, with just 40 seats. But don’t conclude that Heathrow will stick at its current annual score of 72.2m passengers. If ever an airport had an aircraft designed for its benefit, it is Heathrow with the Airbus A380. Mr Ginsberg says: “If every 747 currently operating at Heathrow were to be replaced by an A380, capacity would rise by 10 per cent.” Qatar Airways and its Gulf rival, Etihad, are soon to launch the “SuperJumbo” to Heathrow to help extract maximum value from each slot.

Terminal 2 might be impressively expensive, but the two existing runways are priceless.