The public opening of the new Terminal 5 at London Heathrow airport is less than a fortnight away and the Queen officially opened it yesterday. I was very pleased to have been given the chance to take a look around while it was in its final stages of preparation the week before last.
Having found the British Airways office, a small group of us (people who had blogged about Terminal 5 or may be interested publicising the opening) were given a tour of the terminal by a BA guide. Paul Parkinson of the This Week in London podcast was also on the tour and gives a great overview of the afternoon in his latest episode, and the terminal5insider has been doing a great job of sharing Terminal 5 photos and videos in the run-up to its public opening.
So, what were my impressions? Looking at the terminal from a distance, it doesn't look all that impressive, and it's only when you approach that you start to realise the sheer scale of the place. Departures are at the top of the building, with a passenger drop off area that gives great views of the countryside out towards Windsor. Entering the terminal via the pedestrian bridges, you start to get a better feel for the building, with a number of floors in view beneath you and an airy departures area welcoming you in. Standing in the main hall, the first thought I had was that it reminded me a little of Stuttgart Airport but on a much larger scale.
The terminal is laid out in such a way (see a diagram on the BBC News guide) that passengers should just flow through from the entrance to the gates with little hassle. In the door, to the self check-in kiosks, drop your bag off at one of the many bag drops and then pass through security to the main shopping and departure area. One thing that I really liked was that even before you go through the usual hassles of security (now even more complex, with biometric information being taken for domestic passengers) you can already see the sky through the glass walls on the other side of the terminal.
Even arriving from the Tube, it looks like there will be a relatively comfortable and short trip from the platform, through the wider than normal ticket barriers, and straight up the escalator to the check-in area.
Transport around the airport is set to be made easier as well, with the introduction of the ULTra PRT (Personal Rapid Transit) system scheduled for 2009, initially taking people to and from the car parks (apparently only for privileged passengers) and later around the rest of the northern side of the Heathrow complex. I also read somewhere that travel on the Tube and Heathrow Express between terminals will be free.
It's obvious from the tour and from the photos that security will be paramount in Terminal 5, with cameras designed into the fittings and signage wherever possible, self check-in desks that have space for a camera to be embedded at some point, the added biometric security, and the new design for X-ray scanning machines that physically separate off anything that needs to be checked by hand (which also has the added disadvantage that it's easy to lose track of where your trays are when passing through), to name just a few of the features.
All in all, I was very impressed with the new terminal building, the only real niggle I had being about the precedence of advertising over information in some places (such as arriving into the baggage collection area to be greeted by an advert instead of pointers to the correct belt, but it's still vastly improved over the design in the other terminals where Vodafone adverts take precedence and you actually have to hunt out the information screens).
I'm looking forward to trying it out as a real passenger, and will probably take the Tube out there to take some photos around the place when it opens to the public on 27th March.