Jan. 18, 2008 -- Big changes are coming to London's Heathrow Airport. Two major airlines with routes to the United States are upgrading terminal facilities at the hub airport that is a major gateway to Europe for many Americans.
The first, and perhaps biggest change, comes from British Airways, which on March 27 opens its long-anticipated Terminal 5. The new terminal is filled with light, offers a first-class lounge with a cinema and a view of Windsor Castle and Wembley Stadium.
Virgin Atlantic has already opened its new Terminal 3 at Heathrow. The airline is selling the smaller terminal as a place where passengers have "a seamless and simple journey through the airport."
A British Airways Boeing 747 approaches its stand on Heathrow's new Terminal 5.
"We are also pleased to be able to open our facilities to the public months before BA opens the giant Terminal 5," Richard Branson, president of Virgin Atlantic said in a statement. "We think our new facility goes to show that bigger is not always better, as our passengers will benefit from shorter distances between their check-in and security checks."
One Big Building
To say that Terminal 5 is big would be a massive understatement. The terminal is five times the size of Terminal 4, the airline's current base for long-haul flights.
The new terminal cost about $8.5 billion to build and was designed by the Richard Rogers Partnership. Its distinctive roof is likely to become a landmark on the Heathrow Airport skyline.
Terminal 5 has a new air traffic control tower, a 3,800-space parking garge, a 605-bed hotel directly connected to the terminal building and a total of 60 aircraft stands -- 14 of which have been designed for the new Airbus A380, the double-decker jet that has replaced the 747 as the world's largest passenger aircraft.
The design of the new terminal has been praised by the British press. The Guardian newspaper said the terminal is "an architectural and engineering tour de force that raises the standards of British airport design 100 percent." The Daily Mirror called it "an awe-inspiring temple to the twin gods of air travel and shopping."
Lots and Lots of Glass
An open air plaza runs the length of the main building. It has been landscaped with 40 mature trees, fountains, seating areas, artworks and an outdoor café area when the weather permits. Glass has been used on the exterior of the main terminal building giving it a light, airy and spacious feeling.
The terminal took the airport operator seven years to build as part of an effort to improve the world's busiest international airport in time for the 2012 London Olympics. British Airways will have exclusive use of the terminal.
Over at Terminal 3, Virgin Atlantic is promoting changes at its new Upper Class wing. The airline calls it the "fastest check-in in the world" where passengers can go from a limo to the lounge in just minutes.
Part of the way that Virgin is able to speed its top-tier travelers through check-in is because of a dedicated security corridor for those top-paying customers.
For premium customers, check-in starts when their car arrives outside the terminal. Looks a bit different than your normal airport arrival, right?
Virgin Atlantic's new terminal facility will handle more than 60,000 passengers every week and around 3 million passengers in the next year alone. Virgin Atlantic's terminal was designed by Foster + Partners in collaboration with Virgin Atlantic's in-house design team.
Virgin employees escort their top customers through the check-in procedures.
For the upper-class passengers, a separate entrance helps them speed through check-in.
But most passengers won't get such posh treatment.
More Stores Than Most Malls
Terminal 5 will have an astonishing 112 stores and restaurants to keep you occupied if you arrive at the airport early or are connecting in Heathrow.
Airport authorities have found that they can squeeze more dollars out of their terminals by adding large mall-like concourses.
Terminal 5 is divided into three parts: A, B and C. The main two parts of the building are expected to open March 27. Part C is scheduled for a 2010 opening.
Travelers are arriving earlier to make it through more-stringent security measures and still have enough time to catch their flight.
There are no fast-food restaurants in the new terminal, but it does offer a Tiffany's jeweler and a Prada store.
The Posh Lounges
Travelers in the British Airways first-class and business lounges get to enjoy a spa and even a cinema.
There are even chandeliers in the lounge spaces. Wow, that's high-flying.
British Airways created the world's largest customer lounge complex in Terminal 5. The airline says its lounges "will be the epitome of luxury, elegance and relaxation."
But there is even more to this terminal …
Hopefully bags won't be lost here. But at least while waiting for your bags to arrive, you won't be bored. The architects created a large area with high ceilings and a modern feel to it.
The space seems almost more like a hip nightclub than a place to pickup your golf clubs.
There are 11 baggage carousels in the new Terminal 5 -- all serving British Airways."
But that would be a one big club: the baggage hall runs a quarter mile long.
Heathrow Airport, which now has four operating terminals and two main runways, handles more than 480,000 flights a year. That's a lot of bags.
Those who pay top-dollar -- or should we say British pound -- will be able to escape from it all in the network of lounges.
A dedicated check-in facility has been created in Terminal 5 for British Airways customers flying first class. Customers who are Gold Executive Club members will also be able to use the facility located at the southern end of the building.
Not a bad way to travel.
Part of the British Airways lounge network in Terminal 5.
The Rest of Us
Premium Economy and Economy passengers will benefit from a wider, brighter and generally larger check-in area, but they will be using kiosks to check themselves in.
This is an artist's rendering of the new economy check-in area Virgin is building.
Several airlines around the world have been redesigning their check-in procedures to include more kiosks like these in wide open spaces as part of an effort to speed up the check-in process.
Don't like the idea of checking yourself in? Too bad. It is a growing trend in the industry and British Airways also incorporates the new kiosks in the plans for its new terminal.
The new British Airways kiosk check-in area at Terminal 5.
Photos courtesy of British Airways and Virgin Atlantic.