Today, it's Europe's biggest construction project, covering an area the size of Hyde Park and employing 6,500 builders. But when Terminal 5 opens in 2008, it will finally drag Heathrow into the 21st century. Simon Calder has an exlusive preview

Continental Europe's most successful airports - namely, Amsterdam, Frankfurt and Paris Charles de Gaulle - are blessed with their UK competition. Passengers flying on KLM, Lufthansa and Air France can expect to change planes quickly and easily, within a single terminal. But British Airways, the dominant airline at Heathrow, runs an operation of ludicrous complexity in an airport that has been haphazardly knitted and knotted together.

If you think flying from or to Heathrow is bad, try changing planes there. Like all "network carriers", BA depends for a sizeable chunk of its business on transfer passengers, typically flying from Warsaw to Washington or Madrid to Mumbai. Given the obstacle-strewn trek from Terminal 1 to 4 or from 2 to 3 that such passengers face, pity the poor traveller - and his or her luggage.

Three summers from now, such journeys will be transformed by Terminal 5, whose sole tenant is British Airways. The £4.2bn project is intended to bring some glory to your transit. Never mind the passenger experience; your baggage will have a first-class journey. The prescribed instant when British aviation is due to join the 21st century is 4am on Sunday, 30 March 2008. For now though, Terminal 5 is Europe's biggest contruction project. And the bowels of the new terminal is where Tony Douglas is focusing right now.

If you think your job is tricky, perhaps the task facing Douglas - managing director of the "T5" project - puts it into perspective: "We have the equivalent of one 40-foot wagon coming through our front door every 31 seconds for four-and-a-half years." With a background in aircraft and motor manufacturing, Douglas understands that even a venture as complex as this has some basic fundamentals: notably, get the baggage system right.

Two storeys below ground level, between load-bearing columns that resemble an ancient sarcophagus, we are examining the most expensive baggage-handling system installed at any British airport. This compilation of 11 miles of conveyor belts is where Escheresque crochet meets robotic technology.

The expensive embroidery in the basement of Terminal 5 even has a holding area for baggage. If you have checked your luggage in early, or you face a long wait between connecting flights, your possessions will be diverted to a kind of executive lounge for suitcases: a 9,000-bag holding area that itself is bigger than some of Britain's airport terminals. Still underground, even the rails that will whisk people here on the Heathrow Express and Piccadilly Line are in place. And unlike most vast infrastructure enterprises, Terminal 5 is on budget and on time.

"On time" is a relative term. The interminable legal journey to bring Terminal 5 to life began early in 1993 when BAA, the airport's owner, submitted its planning application. The subsequent inquiry, to evaluate the possible harm caused by adding yet another piece to the Heathrow jigsaw puzzle, took nearly four years - the longest in British planning history. At the end of 2001, the Government announced that BAA had won against an array of social and environmental campaigners.

But Douglas has been saddled with hundreds of caveats stipulating precisely how he should build his aeronautical Jerusalem within the confines of the world's busiest runways and Europe's busiest motorway, the M25. Which is why, long before Richard Rogers' new structure began majestically to rise above the humdrum plain west of London, Tony Douglas opened the largest medical centre in the region. "There was a concern in the local community that with a large workforce you might not get to see your doctor because all my workers might be in front of you."

The 6,500 workers who are creating Terminal 5 might be well looked after, but the health of aviation has visibly deteriorated since the campaign to catapult Heathrow into the 21st century began. Passengers have far more choice than a decade ago, and are much more sensitised to value. On many routes, fares have fallen by half.

British Airways has suffered more than any other airline from the presence of Europe's two biggest and meanest no-frills carriers, easyJet and Ryanair, right on its doorstep. BA's passenger numbers have shrunk for each of the past five years The airline now has one-quarter fewer passengers than in its annus mirabilus, 2000.

For Tony Douglas, that is not such a bad thing. There is now a sporting chance that the original plan - to concentrate all BA's operations within a single space - could work, at least in the short term. Last year, BA carried 26m passengers to, from or through Heathrow, which is close to the initial planned capacity of Terminal 5. That figure corresponds to one passenger per second during normal operating hours.

From the departure level of the new terminal, that passenger will be privileged, indeed. Richard Rogers and Tony Douglas are injecting a touch of class into the airport experience, putting the * * aesthetics back into aviation. They recognise that aircraft have a balletic beauty, and are intent to let you enjoy the show.

An empty airport, almost by definition, is a beautiful airport. Terminal 5 will not look so appealing on a miserable Monday morning as it does as an empty shell, but you sense that it will transcend the every-day - a wave breaking triumphantly above the rectangular monotony of airport architecture.

The departures area resembles the stretched cross-section of, appropriately, a wing. Depending on which way the wind is blowing, passengers checking in on the top level of the new structure will witness aircraft taking off or landing. Either way, the aircraft will be in extraordinarily close proximity. At each end of the cross-section is a picture-window where you may swear you can read the expressions of the passengers.

Will they be happy faces? Tony Douglas thinks the passengers using T5 will be. "It's going to be by far and away the best airport experience in the whole of Europe." He would say that, though, wouldn't he? But from within the soaring steel skeleton, it is difficult to disagree with the boss.

Terminal 5 reclaims the graceful simplicity that Gatwick demonstrated in 1936 when it became the first fully fledged integrated airport terminal. The passenger is once again ascendant, with everything designed to ease the journey. After a ride in a glass elevator from the train platform, you can give a backwards glance from this transportational palace towards Windsor Castle. Then you check in - automatically.

The space constraints in the new terminal are such that queuing is being designed out. The traveller will be greeted by an array of machines offering rapid check-in. If that strikes you as unwelcome elimination of human contact, ask yourself: when was the last time you queued up at a bank simply to withdraw some cash? After you have checked in once using the aviation equivalent of the ATM, you will never want to wait in line again. Human beings are available on request, however.

In contrast with the artificial glare that prevails elsewhere in Heathrow, natural light cascades through the structure of Terminal 5. And in common with the soaring space that defines London's finest railway station, St Pancras, the roof of the new terminal floats serenely above the commonplace of pre-flight procedures.

The security check is as unavoidable as the retail maze that immediately follows it. BAA makes its millions from what we spend in airport shops and restaurants. Its airports are often dismissed as "shopping malls with a runway attached". But such are the limits within which Tony Douglas is working that creating entanglements for the traveller is not an option. Even though the "footprint" of Terminal 5 is an area the size of Hyde Park, that is hopelessly small compared with the SuperJumbo-sized airport dimensions of Singapore, Munich and Qatar.

The result: a terminal with refreshingly few frills, with the path to the plane necessarily less impeded with retail clutter than Heathrow's other terminals. The interminable planning process and constricting geography have imposed a clean simplicity upon T5 that should make life for the passenger as stress-free as flying allows.

That assumes, of course, that you are arriving and departing on a "real" British Airways flight. BA is more promiscuous than almost any other airline in the partnerships it sustains. Through the Oneworld alliance, BA purports to offer far more flights than it is capable of providing. Buy a ticket on our national airline, and you could find yourself travelling on Iberia of Spain, Qantas of Australia or one of a dozen other airlines. But there will be no space for these pretenders in Heathrow's new hallmark terminal.

There is no room to unite this fragile coalition under a single roof, even one as vast and impressive as Richard Rogers' at Terminal 5. So American Airlines and Cathay Pacific are likely to remain at Terminal 3, where they will be joined by Iberia, Qantas and all airlines to Finnair. Confused? You will be.

Meanwhile, the new generation of low-cost airlines such as Ryanair eschew big, complicated airports like Heathrow. "I wouldn't fly there if you paid me," says the airline's chief executive, Michael O'Leary, who regularly lambasts BAA for building facilities on a far grander scale than necessary. A big shed with a runway attached is more the airport style of the ever-expanding Irish no-frills airline that now carries more passengers than British Airways.

Big sheds, however, do not have the architectural merit or aesthetic momentum of the gigantic Meccano set taking shape at Heathrow. Terminal 5 remains well short of Singapore, Hong Kong and Dubai as the gold standards of the airport experience. There is no room for rooftop swimming pools or cactus gardens within the repressive confines of the M25 and the existing airport. But as a dignified gateway and resonant departure point for a country whose strong suit is culture, Terminal 5 will touch the national sense of pride.

High Flyers: The World's Favourite Airports

Amsterdam Schiphol

From a tiny airfield on reclaimed land, Schiphol has grown to welcome 100,000 passengers a year. Its advantage is user-friendliness: most travellers are here simply to change planes. There is plenty to keep them occupied, too, such as the annexe of the Rijksmuseum, where you can contemplate a priceless Old Master before your cheap flight home.

Barra

The southernmost isle of the Outer Hebrides is beautiful, but not over-endowed with tourist attractions. Several times a day, however, Cockle Strand becomes subject to the 1990 Aviation Security Act.There are three runways on this perfect semicircle of sand, which means that pilots can land and take off in six directions. In these marketing-led days, being "the only beach airport in the world to handle scheduled airline services" is a priceless asset.

Prestwick

"PIK" is the code for Scotland's most stylish international airport. It had long been protected by laws that insisted it was Scotland's transatlantic gateway. Once this restriction was lifted in the Nineties, the airlines moved to Glasgow and Edinburgh. But Ryanair came to Prestwick's rescue. The grand ambitions of the 1960s planners are now enjoyed by several million passengers each year.

Singapore

I took the adjacent picture (left) while changing planes. Changi airport is already overstuffed with diversions, from free internet access to an in-terminal cinema. Yet any traveller who wants to see a glimpse of South-east Asia's economic powerhouse need only schedule connecting flights with a few hours to spare. The airport lays on a free coach tour of the city highlights, which even includes a short walking tour of the colonial core and a "bum-boat" ride on the Singapore River. Duty-free loses its appeal when you've tried Sightsee-free.

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