Nightmare on Heathrow street - the story of terminal 5 introduction | PART 1 - From plans to the queen's visit


This is part 1 of a three part translation about the introduction of Heathrow terminal 5 - a pricy architectural masterpiece with a disastrous start.


On 7 May 2008, an unpleasant conversation took place in the House of Commons of the British Parliament in the form of an interrogation. Three gentlemen were summoned to the room, who in March and April of the same year embarrassed Britain and Her Majesty, Elizabeth II. The shame was so great and so public that continuing the conversation without a parliamentary hearing wasn’t an option.

But who were these 3 men, interrogated by the parliament? They were very serious people in a seriously bad situation. If we were talking about cinema, it would have been a situation where Steven Spielberg, Leonardo Di Caprio and George Clooney asked her majesty to invest 8 billion dollars into their newest film, made her come to the first screening, but the shooting took 17 years, the film broke and, after all that, it also failed miserably with people, press and film festivals.

But these people weren’t cinema superstars, they were the higher ups at British Airways - Nigel Radd, Collin Mathews and Willy Walsh. So how come these 3 men were able to embarrass the queen?

Not Friday, still 13th.

March 13 2008 was a Thursday, not Friday. But at Heathrow, no one had the time to think about it, as they were preparing for the arrival of the queen next day, as well as loads of other top government officials. Tomorrow should have been a very happy day - after 17 years of debates, approvals, bans, permits again, courts, Britain’s longest public enquiry, finding ludicrously big amount of money to fund it and then even more ludicrous planning and construction process, the long awaited Heathrow Terminal 5, which was already 7 months into it’s testing phase, was ready for it’s grand opening.

Costing 4.3 billion pounds, it was set to become the modern jewel of british engineering and was just waiting for the Tsunami of awards and titles. And the one to enjoy it was no other than British airways, who thought they were getting a world class superhub which will revolutionize passenger comfort for their passengers. It was like moving from a ghetto to a disney castle.

The ghetto

As you’ve probably have guessed, the ghetto in the previous sentence were the old terminals - 1, 3 and 4. Opened in 1961, terminal 1 was serving most of the BA’s european network, as well as flights to US west coast as well as Johannesburg, Cape Town, Tokyo and Hong Kong. Opening the same year as T1, Terminal 3 was the first airport in the world to introduce jet bridges, but in the 2000s these same jet-bridges were suffocating from the influx of passengers, and to topple it all of, BA had to share them with their biggest rival - Virgin Atlantic. But the real hell was in the 1984 built terminal 4 - serving all the other flights to USA, including the world’s busiest long haul route to New York, busiest European routes to Paris and Amsterdam, millionaire cities of India, with it’s big families and loads of bags, as well as all the other destinations in the Middle East, Central Africa, Australia, the Americas except for America and China.

The true scale of the logistical madness that was going on there were unthinkable. Distances between the terminals were counted in kilometers (ha), buses between terminals were tailing each other, transfer routes were complicated and long, and the wait times at the security lines were measured in hours. But the worst part was the baggage - knowledgeable people said that a safe time to transfer between terminal for your baggage to not get lost is at least 4 hours. And that didn’t guarantee that the baggage will come in one piece. And if you were to arrive there, you could have easily waited more than an hour for your baggage to arrive, if it would even arrive.

In short, Heathrow - the UK’s main aviation hub - was the worst in almost every way, and that gave way to a new regional hub for UK, outside of UK. Seeing people fed up with Heathrow, one dutch airline have seen an opportunity to grow. Soon after, KLM started to fly to almost every international airport in the UK, and in a few years they were serving more UK destinations than British Airways did. And the brits were happy to switch to a new, more comfortable, modern and punctual hub for their trips.

All of that just once again showed the importance of terminal 5, and not just for BA. While they were getting a shiny new terminal, it meant that the aging terminals will finally be able to be closed for renovation, which would, in some time, would mean better passenger comfort for the passengers of other airlines not called British Airways. The other problem was the runways - while new terminals would bring more planes, they would also mean less delays and more efficient runway usage.

And if the chaos above wasn’t enough, just 2 months before the grand opening, when brits haven’t even taken out their christmas trees, British Airways 777 lost it’s engines on short final and crash-landed short of the runway. Luckily, no one died that day, but the flight schedules were disrupted for months. But as if even that wasn’t enough - just a day before the queen’s visit - some lunatic with a backpack went over the fence and headed straight to the active runway, where he would be soon be apprehended, but due to the safety concerns, his backpack was blown up with a controlled explosion, which lead to the airport being closed for an hour, but the queen was still coming.

Not 13th, still Friday

On March 14th, her majesty visited the new terminal and officially presented it to the public. And the building was indeed outstanding - a 80000 square meter roof without a center pillar, 4 underground stations, parking lots connected by driverless taxis and a luxurious hotel nearby. Inside the terminal, tens of shops and restaurants popped up, with names including Gordon Ramsey’s Plane Smith, Paul Smith boutiques and much much more. And to top it all of, the lounges there were the best of it’s time, featuring cinemas, SPAs, restaurants massage and luxurious interiors - it is pretty safe to say that they have started a new era in airport lounges.

The baggage system was fast and complicated. Being able to handle 200 bags per minute, the state of the art system, built by Vanderlante, consisted of 2 baggage lines and 4 railway stations for baggage and a connection to terminal 3’s baggage system, which was operated by IBM. 15000 people were hired to test the new systems, and while they weren’t paid, they still had to be fed and have their transport expenses covered. They had to test all of the systems - immigration (with fake documents), security, check in, baggage system, as well as emergency procedures. Everything seemed to be fine.

Enormous changes were also made to the public transport all around the city - thousands of transport schemes were swapped for the new ones, representing the new metro stations, new commuter rail lines. Inside Heathrow, the situation was even more complex - alongside british airways, 45 other airlines were changing terminals, and adding to that complexity, they were doing it in stages, which meant different sets of navigation for each stage of moving process.

A city-wide ad campaign was launched informing londoners and it’s visitors about the impending changes. Brochures were given out by taxi drivers, and tens of shills were displaced all over the railway terminuses, central metro stations, on bus stations and, well, in the airport itself, shouting airline names and giving out brochures. Not only it was important for them to speak foreign languages, give precise directions and, if needed, walk lost passengers up to their check in desk, but they also needed to recognize the people who haven’t heard the news and just straight up didn’t know they were lost.

Something that would be very complex at even a medium sized airport was happening at one of the Earth’s biggest aviation hubs. Giants like Air France and Lufthansa couldn’t just tell their employees to go to another terminal tomorrow, they also had to move their branding, self-checkin kiosks, set up new offices and lounges. And don’t forget - all of that also had to be tested before they can leave their old spaces to their new owners.

And so, her majesty gave a speech, drank some tea and headed for her majestic palace. The journalists pressed the buttons on their cameras, filmed the queen from every angle and went to their office. The opening date was set - March 28, and, from this point, there was no way back.

The night before the show

It’s March 27 2008 and the next morning 17 years of work should finally pay off. For good measure, airlines canceled some of their flights, both on and before the day X. All the building and emergency systems have been tested half a year before, all the railway infrastructure was tested multiple times. There was only 1 thing still in testing, and that was the baggage system, which was tested 24/7 for the past 6 months, because not only it was the biggest baggage system in the world at the time, it should have also worked with the old IBM system in other terminals.

As night was looming over the city, first flights were already departing towards Heathrow. Around 10 PM, northern runway became a highway for trucks moving all of the BA stuff from terminal 1 to the shiny new terminal 5. Crowds of shills were ready to head out to the city and the airport. Additional transfer busses were ready to bring BA passengers to their new home, a phrase which will soon have a second meaning. Head BA staff fell from their feet from lack of sleep.

It is worth remembering, that the big move didn’t mean that the old problems disappeared, which was made worse by the fact that that Heathrow doesn’t work 24/7, but rather, operates as lungs of a heavy smoker - everything goes in and out in waves. The first wave starts with direct and stopover flights from Hong Kong and continues with planes from Asia and the gulf countries. At this time, Heathrow accepts the world’s biggest planes every 45-50 seconds. That means that every 45 minutes hundreds of passengers go into the terminals, tens of planes need to be served and the tugged away to make room for new arrivals.

The second wave of arrivals starts with flights from Africa south of Sahara, which, as you would expect, require special treatment because of the situation in the region and continues with numerous flights from India, which are known for their exceptional amounts of baggage. Around the same time, the first departure wave of short haul flights around Europe takes off, carrying businessblanks of all kinds and passengers from the first wave of arrivals.

The third wave (7-10AM) is a tsunami of people from the Caribbeans, East coast of USA and Canada, who test the limits of the immigration desks and is only worsened by a wave of arrivals from Europe. It is soon followed by another wave of departures to Europe. It is soon followed by the forth wave (10-14AM) sees a caravan of 777s and A380 from the middle east and numerous flights from China, Japan, west and central USA, who either transfer to yet another wave of European departures or go out into the city.

As clocks near 3PM, the departure area is suddenly becomes very crowded because of flights to the Persian gulf, China, India, Japan and the rest of Asia, as well as East coast of USA and Canada, which departing one after another. After this, departures are mostly empty, slowly filling up by people from, you guessed it, another wave of European arrivals. It’s only around 19-22PM when the last wave of departures to Australia, Hong Kong, Singapore, gulf yet again, and India take off and that’s basically it. Most shops and restaurants close and the airport is mostly empty, only filled by staff and passengers waiting for the morning departures.

However, tomorrow a lot of these people will test the limits of the shiny new terminal. That night, while shills are sleeping before spreading all over London, Willy Walsh doesn’t sleep. The clock is really ticking now. Booking agencies all over the world are changing the tickets of thousands of passengers at a rapid pace, while transport workers in every corner of the city change transit maps and navigation. First caravan of arrivals from Hong Kong is somewhere over the polar regions of Russia, while the wave from Singapore slowly passes over Azerbaijan.

Thanks for reading up to the end!
It is part 1 of a 3 part series of articles about the opening of Heathrow’s terminal 5. This is a translation of a bit from an article by Evgeniy Kaganovich on Apt group’s blog. You can find the link to the original article in russian bellow.

Part 1 Part 2 Part 3

Translated by: @Alexander_Nikitin
Original by: Evgeniy Kaganovich on
Photos from Heathrow photo library


Wow very detailed! Great job

Fun read, nice job Alexander!

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Nice articleBut I still hate EGLL. Whenever I fly to Europe I go through EDDF.Not as many delays and it’s a newer airport

Well I mean who doesn’t hate EGLL? Everyone will hate EGLL at least until they build a third runway.

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Great job Alexander! I’d love to see the next parts.

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It’s one of my favourite airports. Very efficient compared to many other less busy airports.

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Its cheaper and quicker for me who lives in manchester to fly to Rome (where i am from) via Frankfurt, DĂĽsseldorf, Munich or Zurich than it is to fly via London HTR.

You’re actually more likely to be delayed at Frankfurt airport than at Heathrow. Heathrow isn’t the best airport in the world but it’s not as bad as many say it is. Terminal 2 and terminal 5 are great. If possible I would avoid Terminal 3 though.

I thought the “Queen” you are talking about is the 747

I was talking about the older of these 2

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