When any large building project is completed on time and on budget in modern Britain, it is hard not to cheer – even when that project is something of such dubious merit as a new terminal at Heathrow Airport.
Yet there was noticeably little cheer around yesterday as Terminal 5 opened its doors to passengers for the first time. Travellers found their appreciation of the splendid view from Richard Rogers' glass and steel construction marred by cancelled flights, parking problems, staff shortages and non-functioning escalators. Most embarrassingly, the "sophisticated" luggage processing system failed. This was not the check-in paradise that passengers had been promised.
And further problems lie in wait. The layout of the terminal, which allows domestic and international passengers to mingle in the same area, will create a security headache. Heathrow's operator, BAA, was planning to fingerprint domestic passengers to get around this problem, but was forced to drop this scheme last week after the Information Commissioner found this an unwarranted invasion of privacy. The question of what method will be used to keep track of passengers is still being negotiated.
Despite yesterday's chaos, there was still a fair amount of shopping done.
All BAA's airports are replete with shops, but Terminal 5, with its 23,000 square metres of retail space feels more like a shopping mall than a transport hub.
It is no mystery as to why. Ferrovial, the Spanish firm that owns BAA, took on a huge and expensive amount of debt to buy the operator two years ago. Ferrovial needs to meet its payments – and cramming shops into its terminal buildings is one of the simplest ways to crank up income. Raising the landing fees charged to airlines is another. The excuse for the latest hike is higher security costs, but it is actually to help Ferrovial finance its debts. And that is also why BAA is pushing so hard for a third runway at Heathrow. An extra runway means more flights. More flights means more fees and more shopping passengers. Yet it also means more damaging carbon emissions.
Despite this, it is in our interests that Terminal 5 improves on yesterday's awful performance. For good or ill, Heathrow is a gateway to Britain and those gateways should be efficient and welcoming.
But the point of the demonstrators who congregated at the new terminal yesterday was well made. This must not be the first step on the road to a new runway, or an increase in flights.
Terminal 5 should be the final destination as far as UK aviation growth is concerned.