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Will new terminal rejuvenate London's Heathrow?

T5 opens after six years and $8.5 billion.

By Mark Rice-OxleyCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / March 27, 2008

Better ... everything: Queen Elizabeth II opened Heathrow's high-tech new terminal, dubbed T5, on March 14.

Steve Parsons/AP


Heathrow, England

Lost baggage, long queues, dreary carpets, dim lighting, and miles to the departure gates: Heathrow may be the world's largest international airport, but for the 68 million passengers who pass through each year, there has been little else to coo about.

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Until now. The airport that began life more than 60 years ago in a grassy field will be reborn Thursday with a new $8.5 billion terminal that aims to transform Heathrow's image as a place to avoid.

Terminal 5, or T5 as it has become known, is everything that its four aging siblings are not: a triumphant geometry of glass, steel, marble, and hardwood that is light, spacious, and technologically 21st century.

And when the first inbound passengers from Hong Kong step blinking into its cavernous vectors at around 5 a.m. Thursday, they may be forgiven for thinking they have been diverted to one of Heathrow's prouder rivals – Madrid, say, or Charles de Gaulle.

"The terminal is absolutely spectacular," says one airport insider who worked on T5. "You forget you are at Heathrow. It definitely will change the passenger experience."

Simon Calder, a British travel writer, is less effusive. He says Heathrow has much to do to change its image. "It's the gateway to Europe and travelers from North America and elsewhere expect a warm welcome, a smooth transfer, and general absence of stress.

"What they get is the most miserable time. If you get out in a couple of hours and you're on the same plane as your luggage, that counts as a success," he adds. "T5 should transport us into the 21st century, but will only benefit a modest number of passengers. And when the dust settles, Heathrow will still be a challenging place."

In an age when aviation has been closely linked to noise pollution and climate change, expanding Heathrow has proved hugely controversial. T5 was first mooted as far back as 1993 and generated Britain's most protracted public inquiry, which lasted almost four years.

Opposition to airport expansion remains vocal, and hundreds of demonstrators are expected Thursday morning. They are concerned T5 will lead to a new runway, resulting in more flights, more noise, and more pollution.

"For people living under a flight path, with a plane coming over every 90 seconds, there's virtually no escape from the noise," says John Stewart, chairman of an anti-expansion residents group, Hacan. "It's like living under a sky of sound.

He says that of 480,000 flights from Heathrow each year, 100,000 serve destinations where there is a rail alternative. Fittingly, the first flight out of T5 is to Paris, a city just two hours away by rail. "The authorities should limit landing slots for these short-haul flights," Mr. Stewart says.

The company that runs Heathrow (and six other British airports), BAA, makes no secret that T5 is just the beginning of a regeneration that it hopes will culminate in a third runway and sixth terminal. Half the Heathrow passenger throughput – about 30 million people a year – will now pass through this new "gateway to Britain," leaving scope to tear down old terminals and rebuild them in T5's image.