Will new terminal rejuvenate London's Heathrow?
T5 opens after six years and $8.5 billion.
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Mary Kearney, a BAA spokeswoman, notes that the 45-million-person capacity airport has been straining to handle 68 million travelers a year. "But now half the airport population can migrate to T5 and we have the space to undertake major development," she says.Skip to next paragraph
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Ainhoa Alvarez, who uses Heathrow regularly for business and leisure travel, says it's about time Heathrow got a face-lift. "In Terminal 3, the ceilings are really low," she says. "If you're like my husband, you're almost touching the ceiling, and it's a horrible place if you have to be there for a little while. It's just not what you expect when you come to London, especially if you compare it to Madrid or Hong Kong."
T5 is one superlative after another. It was Europe's biggest construction project, with 7,000 workers on site at times, and took almost six years to complete. Constructed over 260 hectares (642 acres) – slightly smaller than Central Park – you could fit 50 soccer fields into the surface area of its five stories. Yet it is crammed between two of the world's busiest runways and Europe's busiest motorway, the M25.
The 40-meter (131-foot) high canopy, which took a year to hoist into place in six chunks, is Europe's biggest single-span roof. Sixty aircraft stands are located around a "toast rack" of three rectangular buildings.
Eminent British architect Richard Rogers compared it to the Pompidou Center. But then, his company designed it. "It's 19 years of work that is coming to fruition when the first plane comes through," says chief architect Mike Davies.
But it is not just about the design, the acclaimed artwork and sculptures, the tree-planted plaza in front of the arrivals lounge, and the sweeping views, which, on a good day, extend across the runways to Windsor Castle.
BAA also enthuses about technology like the baggage drop, which hoists suitcases to an underfloor belt, enabling passengers to walk forward to departures rather than turning around. "It's on the way, not in the way," quips Ms. Kearney. Or the 10 miles of belts capable of handling 12,000 items of luggage in an hour. Twenty security lanes promise speedier passage, though domestic travelers will now be fingerprinted.
The financial sector, less enamored of BAA since it was taken over by Spaniards 18 months ago, thinks T5 could be a watershed.
"It is a turning point for the Heathrow brand, but there is an awful long way to go," says Howard Wheeldon, an aviation expert at London brokerage BGC Partners. "T5 is the model of the future. If they get it right, then we can at last believe that BAA knows what it's doing – it's learned its lesson and is putting airlines and customers where they should be – at the top of the queue."
Mr. Calder says grandeur isn't everything. "Marseille has a new terminal that is the antithesis of T5," he says. "It's a shed, with only one place where your bags are weighed. It's got everything you need and nothing you don't."