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.
Construction Is Ongoing
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.
•Gates. Travelers to and from the USA will mostly leave or arrive from the satellite terminal, 5B. A train leaves every 90 seconds for the 45-second journey between 5A and 5B, to eliminate the labyrinthine walks to gates that can take up to 25 minutes at existing terminals.
Nine out of 10 transfer flights will be inside Terminal 5. Passengers on some flights will continue to be bused from gates to their planes, however, because of runway congestion.
•Baggage. British Airways says the terminal is designed so there should be fewer lost bags and so bags will arrive for pickup before passengers get there. That would be a major improvement for the airline, which had Britain's worst record for mishandled baggage last year and the second-worst record among European airlines, according to the Association of European Airlines.
•Waiting. Terminal 5A boasts the largest upscale lounge complex in the world, with about $120 million pumped into a string of drink and food bars, computer plug-ins for business travelers, a cinema, a spa and a boardroom that can be reserved.
Another lounge is in 5B, and a 600-room luxury hotel is being built next door.
For coach-class travelers, 5A has plenty of restaurants, including one from celebrity chef Gordon Ramsey. Tiffany will have its first airport store there, while 5B will also have food and shops. An outside waiting area with grass and trees is part of the concrete complex.
Terminal 5 couldn't have arrived soon enough. Heathrow had gotten so bad that many U.S. business travelers had begun to circumvent it. Mayor Ken Livingstone last year said it "shamed" London. The airport suffered the worst flight delays last year of Europe's 27 largest airports for the second year in a row. More than a third, 35.5%, of its flights were delayed in 2007, the Association of European Airlines reported last month.
Some frequent travelers, such as American expatriate Michael White of London, say they appreciate any improvement at Heathrow but realize it will be a long time before all its terminals reach the caliber of Terminal 5.
"I appreciate any upgrade," says White, 53, a U.S. oil company manager who travels at least twice a month out of Heathrow to central Asia on business and back to the USA two or three times a year. "In terms of conditions, it's probably one of the worst major airports in the world."