Jimmy Wales, the founder of Wikipedia, expressed delight at the new Terminal 2 in Heathrow yesterday. The internet entrepreneur had the good fortune to be a passenger on United – the American airline that, for the first fortnight, has exclusive use of the new £2.5bn facility at Europe’s busiest airport. At present, you can fly anywhere you want from “T2” as long as it’s inside the United States.
The two dozen other airlines that will eventually use the reborn terminal – almost all of them members of the Star Alliance, the global airline network – will move across more slowly. The owners of Heathrow regard this conservative approach as correct, not least in the light of the chaos into which the last grand project, Terminal 5, descended on its launch day.
But such caution spells another uncomfortable summer for the airlines waiting in the wings, and particularly their long-suffering passengers. It is a pity that no flexibility appears to have been built into the system, to accelerate the trans-terminal migration from mid-20th century to new-millennium facilities.
Yet the fact that Heathrow is served by more Star Alliance members than any other airport in the world is a reminder of London’s ascendancy as the global hub for aviation – and of the need properly to address the shortage of capacity.
While the capital is working wonders on what is basically a collection of runways laid out before, during or very shortly after the Second World War, the stifling congestion has a high economic and environmental cost – as the queue of aircraft circling daily over the Home Counties testifies.
The rebuilt terminal is a sideshow to the controversy about a new runway for the London area. It will do nothing to increase capacity. Sir Howard Davies’ Airports Commission is due to report in a year’s time, and is likely to recommend either a new runway at Heathrow or at Gatwick. The long grass, into which generations of politicians have consigned the airport debate, is being shorn, and the next government must – unlike its predecessors – tackle the issue properly.