It's taken several years to turn T5 into reality, but Heathrow Airport's new facility is almost ready to handle several million extra passengers.
In January, journalists assembled at British Airways' new Heathrow-based terminal were expected to report on the passenger hub. But with an aircraft crash-landing at the airport days earlier, focusing on T5 was far from easy.
Heathrow officials suggest the British Airways airliner, which landed short of the hub's southern runway and skidded along the grass, lost power during final approach. Fortunately, all 136 passengers were evacuated safely from the Boeing 777, with only 18 suffering minor injuries. While a major crisis was averted, the incident provided unwelcome publicity prior to British Airways' T5 promotion.
But regardless of the heightened media interest, the airline's management was determined to showcase the new passenger building, which will be exclusive to BA. "It's designed to make sure there is no queuing in the terminal, full stop," says Robbie Baird, British Airways' CEO for Asia Pacific.
"It makes sure that most of the customer functions are put in the hands of the consumers - check-in and bag drops. What we have found is that when you give customers control, they love it. The building is designed so there should never be more than one person standing in front of you.
As Baird points out, the terminal will have 96 self-service kiosks for check-in and more than 100 baggage drop off desks, with BA staff on hand to assist first time passengers. Queues should be non-existant, with British Airways anticipating more than 80% of travellers checking in using the kiosks or via www.ba.com.
Passengers who check-in using home internet access can then print off their boarding passes before arriving at the terminal. If any of these channels fail, or customers cannot check-in themselves due to visa or ticketing issues, several customer service desks manned by BA staff will offer a last resort.
Once checked in, passengers will quickly pass through security into the main departures hall. According to BA, the whole check-in process through to the lounge should take 30 minutes maximum. It's a bold statement, but Baird is confident lengthy queues will no longer apply to BA passengers. "At the very worst, getting through security will take 12.5 minutes," he says.
"We have a very sophisticated security regime. The security screening itself will be a much better process. When you put all this together, you end up with a very slick operation."
Like Baird, BA's area commercial manager for the Middle East and Pakistan, Paul Starrs, reckons passengers from this region will have few problems adapting to the new check-in system. "We have been doing a lot with the trade [press] to encourage them to tell customers about the terminal and how to check-in online," he says. "We are telling the agents about the self-service kiosks, which is becoming the BA way to check-in."
Aside from speedy check-in and high-tech security, British Airways' directors insist T5 will provide leading shopping facilities and restaurants. The terminal is expected to have 144 retails outlets, including Tiffany, Mulberry and the first-ever Harrods fashion concept store. It will also feature several eateries such as Gordon Ramsey's 'plane food' restaurant, Krispy Kreme, Eat, Carluccio's and Apostrophe.
Several seating areas have been developed for economy fliers, while business and first class passengers can kill time in the Galleries Club Lounge. It is fitted with 3D etched-glass screens, kinetic sculptures and 'animated wallpaper'. In the Concorde Room, which is for first-class and invited guests only, passengers will notice the moving hologram/3-D animation projected on the wall above a mock fireplace.
Bedrooms are available for first-class passengers on a first-come, first-served basis. Elsewhere, the Galleries Arrivals Lounge features a breakfast bar, work and entertainment facilities and hydrotherapy area with 94 shower rooms. The lounges alone cost more than GBP60 million to develop, although Baird believes the investment will pay off. Baird also insists T5 will set the benchmark for other terminals across the globe.
"I believe the terminal will be the best on the planet in the way it's designed. It's totally intuitive."
"I believe the terminal will be the best on the planet in the way it's designed," he says. "It's totally intuitive. The whole experience is going to be really superb, and the way T5 sits in the Heathrow campus will do wonders for our punctuality.
The positioning will improve punctuality, which is as important to the Middle East as it is to the rest of the world. Having an open, airy and calm environment to make connection is something we will promote hard. It is something no one else can compete with."
In addition to self-service kiosks, quicker processing times and recreational facilities, the terminal offers environmentally-friendly surroundings, according to BA. Some 85% of waste from the development has already been recovered, with materials recycled and used throughout the building process. Meanwhile, project developer Rogers, Stirk, Harbour & Partners installed pipes that transfer hot air from an existing power plant to T5, providing the terminal with 85% of its heat.
The terminal also has energy-saving lights that are controlled individually, while escalators and baggage systems slow down when not used. Elsewhere, waste from T5's rainwater harvesting and groundwater boreholes will be used to reduce the facility's demand on public water supply by 70%. British Airways says implementing eco-friendly measures will save around 11,000 tons of carbon dioxide each year.
Once operational, the terminal is expected to handle 25 million passengers in its first year - five million fewer than full capacity. Of that number, a healthy percentage will come from the Middle East, according to Baird.
Indeed, the BA executive believes T5 - which opens to this region's travellers on April 30 when most long-haul flights transfer from Terminal 3 - will prove popular among passengers travelling from the GCC and beyond. "The Middle East operates profitable routes and growth is strong in that region," he adds.
Whether Baird is right about Heathrow continuing to attract Mid-east passengers remains to be seen. But he insists BA flights are almost as popular as the region's local carrier services.
"Our brand is well perceived there, but any foreign airline will struggle to take first place. We are second place [to the national carrier] in most of the markets we serve, but in Kuwait we would be number one and that's quite a strong position to have when you are a foreign airline.
Let's be honest, over the last year-and-a-half, we have been affected by things outside of our control. The number of checked-in bags went up by 22% overnight because you could only take one piece of hand luggage on board, although that has changed now and we have put a lot of effort into solving that by improving security systems.
Developing Terminal 5 has "been a long time coming" as Baird puts it. The airline first applied for planning permission in 1993. But getting approval from the UK's aviation authorities was a drawn out affair. Several issues needed consideration before developers broke ground, such as the environment, safety and security, and cost. Permission was eventually granted, with the project kick-started in recent years.
During the past 18 months, the terminal has been rigorously tested to ensure it operates safely and efficiently once launched. Getting the project from design to development has been a long process, but Baird is confident T5 will be one of the world's leading facilities. "Opening a major facility like this can be a risky business if you don't test it to destruction before you open the doors.
"So you can be assured that when the doors finally open, it will be one of the most tested buildings. It's the biggest construction site in Europe and it's on time and on budget.
Piccadilly line on London's underground system has been extended to T5 and will be open on March 27. Two platforms are dedicated to this and another two for the Heathrow Express service. A further two have been developed for a scheme to build rail links to the west. For those arriving by car, a new spur road from the M25 is in place, while T5's multi-storey car park not only boasts 4000 spaces but has adopted new technology offering a car finder service.
Some 90% of BA flights will operate from T5, so most passengers will not have to move from the terminal. The transfer area is conveniently located in the middle of the building, with channels highlighted in purple.
Six lounges are available: Concorde Room (first-class customers and specially invited guests); Galleries First Lounge (first-class and Gold Executive Club members); two Galleries Club Lounges (for Club World, Club Europe and Silver Executive Club members); Galleries Arrivals Lounge (first-class and Premier card holders) and Elemis Travel Spa.
More than 144 retail outlets, ranging from Tiffany, Mulberry and the first-ever Harrods fashion concept store, to Gordon Ramsey's 'plane food' restaurant, Krispy Kreme and Carluccio's, are available.
Passengers can check-in online from their home, office or hotel for up to 24 hours before flying. They can also manage their bookings by choosing seats and printing out boarding passes. This allows them to go straight to the bag drop when arriving at the airport, before proceeding to security checks.
Once a passenger has checked in, either from home or at the self check-in kiosks, they can deposit their luggage at one of more than 90 desks. The new baggage system can process 12,000 bags each hour.
For a virtual tour of T5 visit www.terminal5.ba.com