Terminal 5, built by British Airways for $8.6 billion, is Heathrow Airport’s newest state-of-the-art facility. Made of glass, concrete and steel, it is the largest freestanding building in the United Kingdom opened in 2008. With 96 self-service check-in kiosks, more than 90 fast bag drops, 54 standard check-in desks, and over 15 kilometres of suitcase-moving belts that were supposed to be able to process 12,000 bags per hour. Terminal 5 had been planned to ease congestion at Heathrow and improve the flying experience for the 30 million passengers expected to pass though it annually. However, the facility’s design did not initially seem to support those goals. After two decades of planning and 100 million hours of labour, opening day did not work out as planned.
Within the first few hours of the terminal’s operation, problems developed. Baggage workers, presumably understaffed, were unable to clear unclaimed luggage fast enough. Many arriving passengers had to endure long delays to get their bags. There were problems for departing passengers as well, as many tried in vain to check in for flights. Planes were allowed to leave with empty cargo holds. At one point on that first day, the airline had no choice but to check in only those passengers with no checked luggage. And it did not help matters when the moving belt system became jammed. Lesser problems also became apparent: a few broken escalators, some hand dryers that did not work, a gate that would not function, and inexperienced ticket sellers who did not know the fares between Heathrow and various stations on the Piccadilly line. By the end of the first day of operation, Britain’s Department of Transportation released a statement calling for British Airways and the airport operator BAA to ‘work hard to resolve these issues and limit disruptions to passengers’.