LONDON — Heathrow Airport, Americans' major gateway to Europe, is about to offer first-class conditions to 40% of the nearly 68 million travelers suffering through the much-maligned hub each year.
On March 27, Heathrow will open an airy new Terminal 5 complex. It will be the exclusive home to British Airways, the biggest of the 90 airlines that operate at Heathrow, with 30 million passengers annually.
The modern glass-and-steel main building and nearby satellite terminal promise the airline's passengers easier access to and from the airport, relief from jammed check-in counters and clogged arrival halls, more reliable baggage service and world-class amenities while waiting.
"It will be a far more pleasant flying experience," British Airways spokesman Richard Goodfellow says.
That's good news for passengers on British Airways' 36 daily flights to and from the USA that will operate out of Heathrow by the end of April. British Airways carries most of Heathrow's 14 million trans-Atlantic passengers annually, and trans-Atlantic trips make up almost half the airline's international flights.
The new terminal won't be a panacea, however. It won't eliminate all the "Heathrow hassle" of overcrowded and delayed conditions at the busiest airport on this side of the Atlantic and third-busiest in the world behind Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson and Chicago's O'Hare.
The rest of Heathrow is still undergoing a modernizing overhaul. That means passengers not flying on British Airways must endure the inconvenience of construction and accompanying detours at other terminals until 2012.
Nor will it eliminate flight delays, most of which are caused by Heathrow's two runways that operate at 99% capacity. A third strip, proposed by the government for 2020, is vehemently opposed by environmentalists and Heathrow's neighbors.
Terminal 5's two $8.5 billion buildings are designed to eliminate as much Heathrow hassle as British Airways and Heathrow's owner and operator, the Spanish-owned firm BAA, says they could envision:
•To and from the terminal. Main Terminal 5, or 5A, has direct rail links to central London via the Piccadilly subway line for about $8 and via Heathrow Express to and from Paddington Station for about $29. The walk should take about five minutes after claiming bags. A dedicated road to the new terminal should ease congestion for taxis, which can cost up to $130 to central London. A 4,000-space parking garage is adjacent to the main terminal.
•Arrivals. Halls in Terminal 5A for arriving passengers are roomy, with plenty of desks for immigration officers to check passports. Signs directing passengers to appropriate lines are clear.
Several machines allow frequent travelers who have registered with the British government to have the irises of their eyes scanned for faster entry.
•Check-in. All flight check-ins are in Terminal 5A. Passengers will check in and get boarding passes at 96 kiosks, then walk forward to drop off checked baggage.
The goal, the airline says, is to keep passengers from backtracking, as they often do in other terminals.
•Security. Screening of passengers and their carry-on luggage is in Terminal 5A, close to baggage drops. The large areas are meant to eliminate long, snaking lines that exist in other terminals, and keep waits under five minutes.
Passengers traveling or transferring to flights inside the United Kingdom, however, will have to have their fingerprints scanned.