Chaos continues at London’s new Terminal 5


LONDON (eTN) – British Airways is reeling in embarrassment at the chaotic launch of its new London home, Heathrow Terminal 5. Two weeks after the opening of the state-of-the-art terminal, systems are still not working as they should and short-haul flights continue to be canceled or delayed.

Seventy percent of BA’s international and domestic services have been transferred to Terminal 5, and the airline has been forced to review a decision to transfer remaining services later this month.

BA’s transatlantic flights continue to operate out of Terminal 4 for the time being.

Over 28,000 items of baggage have failed to reach their destinations, and BA has taken the unusual step of shipping by road to a courier firm in Milan in Northern Italy for distribution around Europe. A spokesman for BA said the airline is working continuously to reunite bags with their owners.

Since Terminal 5 opened as the exclusive base for British Airways services, the airline has been forced to cancel around 500 flights. The main problem has been the failure of the computerized baggage conveyor system. It became overloaded within hours of the terminal’s opening and has not yet recovered to full service.

“Because we are unable to use the automated system for reprocessing and re-screening delayed bags in Terminal 5, bags are having to be transported to other sites at or near Heathrow to be re-screened manually before being brought back to be loaded on flights to their destinations. This process is extremely time-consuming,” said a BA spokesman.

In addition, some elevators failed and airport staff were late getting to their work stations because of faults in the personal security checking equipment. The airport operator abandoned a plan to finger-print every person entering the new terminal, though this was mainly because of objections concerning privacy.

Hundreds of passengers using Terminal 5 on its first day of operation were left to sleep overnight in the airport because hotels were full.

The disruption to services at Terminal 5 are estimated to have cost British Airways £16m (US$32m) in lost business, but the longer term effect of the failings could be even greater. The chaos is causing acute embarrassment to the airline and the airport operation, the Spanish-owned British Airport Authority.

British Airways chief Willie Walsh admitted that Terminal 5’s first day had been a “disaster,” and he said he was bitterly disappointed it had not been the success it should have been. UK Aviation Minister Jim Fitzpatrick said the new terminal, which was built at a cost of £4.3billion (US$8.6 billion) had fallen well short of expectations, and passengers had suffered an unacceptably poor travel experience.

Over the following days, there were numerous apologies from the airline and the airport operator for continuing problems and delays at Terminal 5.

BA’s competitors have been quick to take advantage of the situation. Virgin Atlantic said hundreds of BA customers had switched across to their long-haul services which operate out of Terminal 3 at Heathrow. BMI said their services at Terminal 1 continued to run efficiently, and premium air services such as SilverJet operating from London Luton airport has seen a surge in traffic as BA first class passengers switched their flights to avoid using Terminal 5 at Heathrow.

The chaotic opening of the new terminal does not bode well for two key future developments in aviation: the Open Skies agreement which has just come into effect and opens transatlantic routes to all airlines, and plans for further expansion of London Heathrow including a third runway and a sixth terminal. Both developments face strong opposition from environmental lobbyists who have gained strength from the disruption, and point out that Heathrow has reached its limit of operation.