Heathrow Airport opened a gleaming new terminal Thursday in an effort to ease congestion and brighten up the aging hub near London, but initial delays left passengers less than enthusiastic about the expensive new structure.
"It's almost open," Jeff Bryan joked, after he and his wife spent 90 minutes disembarking from an overnight flight from Miami and collecting their luggage. "We didn't mind because we're not in a rush, but a lot of people were."
Terminal 5, a large space flooded with light and with an open view of the airfield and countryside beyond, was built to ease congestion and brighten up the busy but increasingly run-down and cramped London airport.
The first plane arrived from Hong Kong without a problem. But then the passengers from Miami found they could not get off the plane because of jetway problems.
Once those were solved, they said they waited 30 minutes in the new baggage hall, where airport officials had vowed the state-of-the-art belt system would be ready "from day one" to repair Heathrow's reputation as a place where arrivals are slowed by poor baggage handling.
"We had to wait on the plane for quite a while, and when we got off the people in the shirts that say 'Can I help?' couldn't help at all," said Debbie Bryan, who had arrived at the new terminal from Florida.
But, she said, "It's a beautiful airport, very unique, a real open, modern concept."
The new terminal's problems forced British Airways to cancel 33 of 534 departing flights on Thursday flights.
British Airways has exclusive use of terminal — which is able to handle 30 million passengers a year — and is moving many of its flights from Heathrow's other terminals to the new building.
Before the addition, Heathrow's passengers frequently suffered delays caused by its operating beyond capacity — handling more than 68 million passengers annually despite being designed for a load of 45 million.
BAA said British Airways' move to Terminal 5 would free up gates at other terminals for U.S. airlines starting March 30 — including Continental, Delta, Northwest Airlines and U.S. Airways. Meanwhile, American Airlines is shifting several of its flights from London's Gatwick airport to Heathrow, officials said.
But the effort to launch the $8.6 billion terminal has been a point of contention with environmentalists and residents since planning and construction began 19 years ago.
Roughly 300 protesters wearing bright red "stop airport expansion" T-shirts led a brief demonstration Thursday morning outside the terminal's international arrivals area.
The demonstrators said they hoped to publicize their cause and halt construction of a planned third runway at Heathrow as well as ensure that no more terminals are built.
"Expanding airports and expanding the number of flights is not sustainable," said London resident Eva Watkinson, 27. "The government says it wants to lead on climate change, but is in favor of this massive airport expansion."
Airport operator BAA PLC had planned to begin fingerprinting domestic passengers when Terminal 5 opened, but delayed those plans Wednesday after an independent watchdog complained. The Information Commissioner's Office warned that fingerprinting would infringe on passengers' privacy rights.
The new facility is more upscale than existing terminals, with a spa and unusually spacious first-class and business lounges featuring chandeliers, wine racks and, in one, even a cinema.
BAA has earmarked $12.4 billion for improvements to the other terminals over the next decade in an effort to make the run-down, congested airport more attractive to international travelers.
The Terminal 5 project began in 1989 with a design competition won by the Richard Rogers Partnership — now known as Rogers, Stirk Harbour + Partners.
Source: AP Features