Monday, March 31, 2008

Heathrow Terminal 5 Survivors

Looks like it was a bad day to give up sniffing glue.

We arrived back at Heathrow Airport in London on Sunday knowing that there was a chance that all would not go well in the next few hours.

Not only do I have a horrible track record with this particular airport (read: losing my luggage twice on one trip, canceling a flight as it was to begin loading, having to take a taxicab at a cost of 200 pounds (400 dollars) to get to another airport just so I could get home within 24 hours - Maybe it could have been better as a script for Airport 3.0. ), but the recent opening of the new terminal 5 had been making the news for all of the wrong reasons. The new terminal which cost 4 billion pounds opened on the previous Thursday to much fanfare which didn't last very long. Soon major faults were found in the baggage movement service which lead to over 200 flights being canceled over the next 3 days, and well over 15,000 pieces of luggage being separated from its owners.

Our plane from New York docked in terminal 3 on the forth day of the new terminal's operation, and we were quite nervous about which terminal our connecting flight to Berlin would be through. As we got to the "Flight Connections" board in terminal three we were quite frightened to see that our flight home would depart from the ill-fated terminal 5.

Maneuvering to the bus which would take us to T5 wasn't difficult, the wait was not long, so far so good. The trip was a long one, and since it was mostly underground (hey, someone got smart and installed a tunnel to the new terminal!) there was not the usual feeling of absolute chaos which one normally gets while taking a bus from one terminal to the other at Heathrow. Can you possibly clean up that mess, BAA?

We pulled up to the spacious, state-of-the-art facility and were greeted by people wearing a "How May I Help You" shirt. One of them was so helpful, he was standing behind a glass wall making it impossible for people to talk with him. None of them had even a slightly friendly look on their faces, making them VERY approachable of course. Similar people were sprinkled throughout the facility, which was helpful actually because even though I would not approach them unless completely lost and late for a flight, I always knew where I belonged next because they were kind of "waving" us into the appropriate direction.

After some confusing moments we were directed to the passport/ticket check line, then on to the security line. Both lines were short, which was good. The passport people were curt but efficient, the security people not helpful at all. After being through many airports we've come to the realization that each one has different rules... i.e. shoes on/off, laptop in/out of the case, jackets off/on, etc. Most of them give you some sort of clue by way of signs, but not this new terminal... oh no, it's just better to have a little guessing game while 30 people are waiting behind you.

The system for checking your personal items still isn't improved in any significant way. I mean this is supposed to be the newest, best, coolest airport in the world... but they simply haven't figured out a decent and speedy way of getting people moved through the security check procedure. I would hope that they might realize that a longer "arrangement area" would be advantageous; people removing all their belongings can take a while. If there is more room for this to happen, then maybe it would proceed more quickly. The same is true at the end, but it is even more hurried on that side than the normal procedure thanks to a Plexiglas wall which keeps you away from your stuff until four other boxes are out of the scanner - lovely for a person standing around in their stocking feet waiting to get to their shoes. It seems the ONE true innovation they've come up with is removing the job of the guy who waited at the end of the line to take the boxes back to the beginning of the line; now that is all automated. The gray "boxes" you put your belongings into must STAY on the "line", and are not to be removed. Thus you can't take your whole box away from the line to get yourself together again... you MUST do all of that at the end of the line and before your box disappears from view on the automated "line". BUT, don't mess up the system by removing a box or piling up the boxes so that more boxes are allowed to come out of the scanner. I would have taken a photo or better yet a movie of the whole event, but I figured that the rather gruff-looking security guard with the big nose wouldn't approve.

The shopping area is extensive, huge in fact. This leads me to believe that the duty free area is the most important thing to the BAA (British Airline Association - I think), because the seating for the individual traveler is minimal. What is the best way to keep people shopping and bringing money into the U.K.? Don't give them a comfortable place to sit down. In my estimation the seating is insufficient in both the main waiting and gate areas for all of the people coming to and fro.

Eventually we got to the gate only to be told that there would be a thirty minute wait while the plane was cleaned and prepped for us. That wait turned into 45 minutes, but we got on pretty quickly after that. Once the plane was loaded they came onto the loudspeaker to let us know that there would be a delay because we would need to wait for more baggage to be delivered to the plane. Soon they announced that the baggage was in but that there would be another delay because we are in line to use the takeoff runway. All in all it ended up putting us back about an hour and a half. The last part didn't bother me one bit, I finally got some great sleep as we waited on the tarmac.

With this great example of British engineering expertise... It has made me wonder about the 2012 Olympics.


G in Berlin said...

You are right- that picture does make it clear. Should I take it down? But yes, I would love to meet you guys for lunch, even at a better place if you like (althoughthere is much to be said for a meatball with jalapenos;-).

Drop me a line at out the xvn and xvn) and we can get in touch. I also wanted to ask whether you read the Calvo for a book club? I know someone in that club but wasn't able to make the last meeting because of other committments.

G in Berlin said...

And you are tagged!

J said...

Thanks for the write-up. I hate Heathrow and avoid it like the plague. At least your luggage was on your plane.

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