London Heathrow's New Terminal Five

The first passengers to arrive at London Heathrow’s brand new Terminal Five last week had great travel expectations, but many never reached their destinations. Their flights were delayed, if not cancelled. However, some of their suitcases went on unexpected trips…like to Scotland and Italy…. by FedEx. 

In British English, what happened at Terminal Five is called a “cock-up.” It is a term generally used (even in polite society) to refer to things done badly by politicians. For once, the pols were not the immediate or sole cause of this particular “cock-up.” The history of Terminal Five is somewhat tortured. Here are the gory details about how globalization may have inadvertently sunk another vessel of the British Empire.

In 1993, the British Airport Authority (BAA) submitted a planning application for what is now Terminal Five. In order to receive permission to build anything, UK government rules require parties to hold public hearings so that everyone can have their say. In this case, did they ever. For a start, no less than 700 conditions impacted the plan. One hundred hectares of the site (about the size of Hyde Park) had to be excavated by a team of 80 archaeologists. This amounted to the UK’s largest ever single-site archaeological excavation. They dug stuff up from 8,500 years ago. Residents decried noise pollution. Green Protesters broke through Heathrow’s perimeter and mounted sit-ins on building cranes.

Finally, on November 20, 2001, after 3.8 years  (46 months) of hearings and debates  (the longest discourse of its kind in British history), the construction of Terminal five (T5) was finally approved. Before a spade of earth was turned, Terminal Five had cost its proponents, BAA and BA, £63 million. Now here’s the part where we really go global. 

In 2006, BAA (now BAA Ltd) was taken over by a consortium, Grupo Ferrovial, which is based in Spain. GF owns 65% of Naples International Airport in Italy, and seven airports in the UK (Heathrow, Gatwick, Stansted, Glasgow, Edinburgh, Aberdeen and Southampton). BAA Limited also has international and subsidiary operations in Boston’s Logan, Baltimore Washington  (aka Thurgood Marshall Airport), and Indianapolis International.

Last week, five years and £4.3 billion ($8.6 billion) later, Terminal Five opened to the public with great fanfare. British Airways (currently the sole occupant of T5 – Virgin Atlantic declined a slot) boasted that the facility could handle 30 million travelers a year. This was over and above the 90 million who already transit in and out of Heathrow annually. T5 had all the modern conveniences and was upscale to the max. McDonalds was to be banished in favor of a Gordon Ramsey gourmet restaurant. Sixty-five escalators — including the second longest in all of England — would move those millions up and down with ease. Ninety-six “fast bag drop desks” (a post 9-11 pause for thought) promised a unique flow through system for passenger check-ins. Eleven miles of high tech systems and “track” were laid in order to handle up to 5000 bags an hour. And that’s where it all seems to have gone wrong.

A software glitch in the computerized baggage handling system ultimately separated between 15,000 to 28,000 people (estimates vary) from their worldly travel goods. Within a day, Terminal Five became known as a place where baggage (and holiday dreams) went to die. Comparisons to another British engineering failure, the Titanic, were not infrequent. But was this really a British failure? 

Grupo Ferrovial had subcontracted out virtually all T-5 systems and services to a bevy of international corporations. The Specifications List (of suspects) is available online.

Thinking that any new operation could have a bad first day, T5 remained open for business over this past weekend, but its appetite for baggage went unsatisfied.
Supermodel Naomi Campbell  (known for her anger management issues) provided comic relief  when — upon learning one of her designer bags was missing — spit on a policeman who eventually long hauled her designer body off a BA plane. 

Alas, by then, so many suitcases had landed among the tombs of the unknown luggage, that the reuniting effort became impossible to achieve in-house. At this juncture, someone in a position of authority decided to out source the problem. And why by truck? Because the new rules say that you can’t have luggage on a plane if the owner is not identified.

Bags from some UK flights were diverted to Stansted Airport. Others went by large vans to Manchester and Scotland because British Airways (BA) felt that that bags which belonged to European mainland customers needed to be sorted in a special facility. This explains how an untold number of suitcases were trucked to Milan, Italy. Adding insult to injury, one British pundit quipped that the Italian option was a real stereotype buster. The choice was made, in part, because thefts and pilfering by baggage handlers in UK airports has been on the rise. At Stansted Airport alone, 22 handlers have recently been arrested for stealing. British workers were being told that sending stray baggage to the country that gave rise to the Mafia offered passengers a better chance to get back their goods.

Ironically, Italy’s flagship airline, Alitalia, is now on the edge of bankruptcy, while BAA/BA is looking at a price tag of around $32 million to pay for the world’s worst baggage bungle. There are calls for the head of BA to resign. He’s Irish by the way.

In the end, the software glitch may be patched, but this incident poses a rather haunting question about the London Summer Olympics of 2012. Many new buildings, facilities, and transport systems are being built in London to handle the anticipated crowds. The Conservative Party (Shadow) Transportation Secretary, Theresa Villers, has requested assurances from BA and BAA that Terminal Five matters will be straightened out in the next four years. The Olympic Torch — now on its way to China — was supposed to go through T-5, but that part of its London route was cancelled. Probably just as well. Both the Terminal and the Torch seem to have had very troubled journeys so far.