Posh London Air Terminal Flunks Its Debut

A view inside London Heathrow Airport's brand new Terminal 5 building. AP Photo/PA

Opening day at Heathrow Airport's grand new Terminal 5 turned sour Thursday as severe baggage handling delays led to numerous flight cancellations, stranding many irate passengers.

What was supposed to be a day of glory for British Airways, sole occupant of the mammoth new terminal, turned into a shambles as problems worsened. The airline was finally forced to restrict passengers at the terminal to hand luggage only, leaving many with the choice of rebooking their flights or seeking refunds.

Problems developed in the first hours of the new terminal's operation - when many passengers had to wait more than one hour to receive their bags - and deepened in the afternoon, when many flights were canceled.

At one point, a British Airways flight left for Paris without any of its checked baggage in the hold, embarrassed airline officials conceded, making a mockery of the earlier claim that the new baggage system would work well from day one.

"I'm not a happy bunny," Sarah Lowdon, whose flight to Newcastle was canceled Thursday after she arrived at the new terminal. "They said they'd refund my money but the time I've lost is mine. They said it was because of baggage problems, but all I have is a carry-on. I'm being penalized for their mistakes."

She said she started her journey with high hopes because of all the hype about the $8.6 billion terminal, the centerpiece of a plan to revive Heathrow Airport's flagging reputation - only to have them dashed.

Other disgruntled passengers tried in vain to check in for flights.

"The terminal looks nice but it would be better if it worked," said Vincent Groccia as he killed time waiting to see if his flight for Paris would depart late or be canceled. "I tried to check my bags but they told me the conveyor system is not working. I'm hoping to get out of here tonight."

There were other, lesser problems as well: a few broken escalators, some hand dryers that didn't work, a nonfunctioning gate at the new Underground station, and inexperienced ticket sellers who didn't know the fares between Heathrow and various stations on the Picadilly line.

Britain's Department of Transportation released a statement Thursday evening calling for British Airways and BAA, the airport operator, to "work hard to resolve these issues and limit disruption to passengers."

British Airways was forced to apologize and restrict some passengers to hand luggage only.

"We always knew the first day would represent a unique challenge because of the size and complexity of the move into Terminal 5," British Airways' Director of Operations Gareth Kirkwood said. "We are working extremely hard on solutions to these short-term difficulties."

The delays ruined what had been promoted as a milestone day in British aviation.

It took 19 years for the new terminal to move from concept to reality. George Bush was president of the United States when the whole thing started - George Herbert Walker Bush, that is.

Despite the troubles, in some other ways it was a successful first day of operations for the terminal, which was officially opened by Queen Elizabeth II at a ceremony several weeks ago.

The weather cooperated, flooding the building's oversize atrium with brilliant sunshine, and travelers were able to admire the wide open views of the greening English countryside.

The highly automated check-in system seemed to work fairly well in terms of reducing lines at check-in facilities and security checkpoints. The terminal, built to handle 30 million passengers per year, seemed remarkably quiet and calm once it started normal operations.

Comparing the new structure to the existing Heathrow terminals is like comparing the Four Seasons hotel in Paris to a Days Inn in Dayton. No fast food here: A wide variety of pricey gourmet food is available, public seating areas are comfortable and clean, and even the lavatories are stylish, with soft lighting, dark floors, and modern equipment.

Trash cans were the only things missing. They are banned for security reasons, as in most British transport facilities.

The terminal opening drew a crowd of about 300 environmental protesters, including many who vowed to step up efforts to prevent any further expansion of Heathrow and its flight operations.

"This airport expansion is a stark example of how the government's rhetoric doesn't match its actions," said Tamsyn East, a 28-year-old activist wearing a red T-shirt with "stop airport expansion" printed in front. "They say they want to lead the fight against climate change, but they're allowing all this."

The airport operator also faces a tussle in its quest to fingerprint domestic passengers and passengers who transfer from international to domestic flights. Plans to start fingerprinting Thursday have been "temporarily" dropped due to privacy concerns raised by an independent watchdog agency.
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