10 Years of London Heathrow Terminal 5: How Heathrow has changed

As Heathrow celebrates the 10th anniversary of the official opening of Terminal 5, we take a look back at how much the airport has changed in ten years.

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London Heathrow Collage
London Heathrow Collage (Image Credit: Heathrow)

On 14 March 2008, Her Majesty The Queen officially opened London Heathrow Terminal 5. You can take read the story of its opening here. In the past ten years, London Heathrow has undergone enormous changes so let’s take a look back.

1. Heathrow has got better

Immediately before Terminal 5, BA had the ignominy of being one of the worst airlines in Europe for bagging handling.

Breakdowns in the baggage systems were a frequent occurrence. As was overcrowding in the terminals. Tents made a regular appearance outside Terminal 4 as soon as there was any disruption. Punctuality was similarly bad.

BAA, as it was then known, as owner of Gatwick, Heathrow and Stansted was perceived as a byword for a rent-seeking monopoly.

Gatwick and Stansted are now separately owned from Heathrow. After the opening of Terminal 5, Terminal 1 and the old Terminal 2 have closed and been demolished. A new Terminal 2, The Queen’s Terminal, opened in 2014. Terminal 4, which operationally was always on the verge of collapsing in on itself in the last years of BA’s operation, has been refurbished.

Airlines have also regrouped largely around alliance membership with Star Alliance, Oneworld and SkyTeam members in Terminals 2, 3 and 4 respectively.

Whilst Heathrow has had some bad moments, notably the weather disruption of December 2010 which exposed very poor working relations between the airport and its airlines, lessons from this and the opening of Terminal 5 have been learned and contingency planning has improved.

2. Heathrow has become a superb airport for lounges

Virgin Atlantic, no doubt in response to the competitive threat of Terminal 5, was first off the mark opening its highly acclaimed Upper Class Wing and Heathrow Clubhouse at Terminal 3 in 2007.

BA opened no less than 8 “Galleries” lounges across Terminals and 3 and 5. Designed by David Davies & Stuart Barron the lounges featured specially commissioned artwork such as Troika’s Cloud and electroluminescent art wall “All the time in the world.”

The opening of Terminal 2 in 2014 saw a string of new lounges from Aer Lingus, Air Canada, Lufthansa, Singapore Airlines and United. Cathay Pacific and Qantas have made significant investments in lounges at Terminal 3. As have Etihad, Qatar Airways and SkyTeam at Terminal 4. And it’s not just first and business class passengers who are spoiled, No 1 Lounges and Plaza Premium have built up very respectable portfolios of paid for lounges across the airport.

Whilst Hong Kong International and Sydney Kingsford-Smith airports are rightfully known for the Cathay Pacific and Qantas lounges, it’s hard to think of any other airport in the world with so many lounges from so many lounges.

3. The arrival of the celebrity chef and the on board picnic.

The opening of Terminal 5 marked the first restaurant by a high profile chef at an airport terminal with Gordon Ramsay’s “Plane Food”.

If truth be told, if you pick the right table (eg not adjacent to someone wolfing down their food whilst on a conference call about last quarter’s sales figures!) it can have a better ambiance than the BA lounges.

Plane Food also became famous for its takeaway picnics which conviently coincided with ever diminishing complimentary offerings in the air.

Not to be outdone, the new Terminal 2 hosts The Perfectionists’ Cafe from Heston Blumenthal.

4. Farewell to bmi British Midland

bmi British Midland was once the 2nd largest airline at Heathrow with around 15% of its take-off and landing slots.

Though with Virgin Atlantic’s chutzpah and, at times, cunning PR operation, you’d be forgiven for thinking otherwise. It had a loyal following, particularly from domestic passengers frustrated at BA’s propensity to cancel UK domestic flights first in the event of disruption.

Sir Michael Bishop, the airline’s majority shareholder, exercised an option to sell his stake to Lufthansa in 2009. Lufthansa could not turn around heavy losses at the airline and in spite of very public overtures from Virgin Atlantic, it was sold to BA’s parent company International Airlines Group in 2012.

Very little of bmi’s former route network remains. The list of former bmi routes suspended by BA includes no less than Addis Ababa, Almaty, Amristar, Baku, Bergen, Bishkek, Casablanca, Damascus, Dammam, Freetown, Khartoum, Marrakech, Stavenger, Tbilisi, and Yerevan.

Routes that remain include Amman, Beirut, Belfast, Dublin and Hannover.

It has however facilitated a transformation of BA’s short-haul route network with its slots now used for year round services to Bilbao, Billund, Bologna, Gran Canaria, Innsbruck, Inverness, Krakow, Leeds-Bradford, Luxembourg, Marseille, Palma, Reykjavik, Tenerife and Zagreb.

5. The rise of the summer seasonal route

Once upon a time, at least terms of perception, London Heathrow was the airport for business travellers, London Gatwick was the “bucket and spade” airport.

Now there are more than 15 BA summer seasonal routes at Heathrow. Why? Well, in August, BA makes more money using the slots it inherited from bmi sending an aircraft in the middle of day full of passengers to Ibiza and Mykonos than half-empty to Frankfurt. You see a full list of routes here. New routes for 2018 include Almeria, Corsica and Kefalonia.

6. Virgin Atlantic: Yesterday, the world

Virgin Atlantic and BA have a long and complex history.

Their rivalry was reignited with the opening of Terminal 5. However, the two airlines have since followed very different paths. BA, buttressed by synergies from merging with Iberia in 2011 and its subsequent acquisition of bmi, has expanded significantly. Virgin has significantly scaled back its ambitions.

Virgin routes from Heathrow to Accra, Cape Town, Chicago, Mumbai, Nairobi, Sydney, Tokyo and Vancouver have been suspended. The shopping list of potential new routes to Bangkok, Melbourne and Rio de Janeiro has long been discarded. Dehli, Dubai, Hong Kong, Johannesburg, Lagos and Shanghai are now the only non-US routes served from Heathrow. Virgin is now largely focused on the US with its transatlantic joint-venture partner Delta.

Virgin will enter a new chapter this year as Virgin Group cedes control of the airline by selling a 31% stake in the airline to Air France KLM. It will also merge its joint-venture with Delta into Delta’s parallel joint-venture with Air France KLM.

7. Heathrow’s American Dream

The opening of Terminal 5 coincided with the withdrawal of a byzantine treaty known as Bermuda II.

This restricted access to transatlantic flights to American Airlines, BA, United and Virgin Atlantic (excluding fifth freedom flights from Air India and Kuwait Airways). It also meant that American and BA could only operate certain routes at London Gatwick.

The EU-US Open Skies treaty allowed what was then Continental, Delta, Northwest Airlines and US Airways access to Heathrow. And at considerable expense. Continental paid a record $208m for four Heathrow slot pairs. Whilst this was initially to the detriment of Gatwick, Heathrow gained many new/reinstated routes to destinations such as Charlotte, Detroit, Las Vegas, Minneapolis, Portland, Raleigh Durham and Salt Lake City.

Eastbound, Heathrow has not been quite so successful. A BA route to Chengdu was short-lived and there is considerable frustration at the UK’s VISA regime for visitors from China. However, Heathrow has welcomed Beijing Capital Airlines and Vietnam Airlines.

8. The Next Generation

Shortly before Terminal 5 opened Singapore Airlines operated the first scheduled Airbus A380 passenger service from London Heathrow.

Emirates and Qantas soon followed. As did Etihad, Korean Air, Qatar Airways, Malaysia Airways and Thai Airways. BA now has a fleet of 12 Airbus A380s at Heathrow.

More next generation aircraft followed. A large number of airlines now operate the Boeing 787 at Heathrow including AeroMexico, Air Canada, American Airlines, BA, United and Virgin Atlantic. The 787 has helped establish / reintstate new routes from Heathrow to Austin, Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City, New Orleans, San Jose, Santiago and from later this year Nashville and The Seychelles. Qantas will begin the first non-stop scheduled passenger service from Europe to Australia with Boeing 787 flights to Perth.

Asiana, Ethiopian, Finnair, Malaysia Airways and Qatar Airways now operate the Airbus A350 from London Heathrow. BA and Virgin Atlantic will both take delivery of the Airbus A350 in 2019.

9. Farewell to The Queen Of The Skies

There is long list of airlines worldwide that have said “adieu” to the Queen Of The Skies: Air New Zealand, ANA, Cathay Pacific, Delta, Japan Airlines, Singapore Airlines, United.

Qantas and Virgin Atlantic have long ceased Boeing 747 operations at London Heathrow. When El Al withdraws Boeing 747 operations at Heathrow later this year, BA will be the last remaining operator of the aircraft at Heathrow. And for quite some time. It does not expect to retire the 747 until 2024.

10. The automated airport

It may seem strange to think now, but in the run up to Terminal 5 there was a big push on the part of BA to change passenger behaviour to use online check-in so that passengers arrived at the airport “Ready To Fly”.

And passengers had good reason to do so. BA introduced a concept of “conformance” which meant if you didn’t enter security 35 minutes before your flight you would be automatically offloaded.

The iPhone hadn’t even celebrated its first birthday by the time the terminal opened. Now tools such as online checkin and smartphone apps are an everyday part of the experience. More automation is coming with automated / biometric boarding gates and automated ground vehicles.

And some things never change…

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

Heathrow is still a two runway airport, with a third runway a very distant prospect. Cancellations are still guaranteed during severe weather. The experience at security can still be erratic. Heathrow will never have the runways of Amsterdam, the connections experience of Munich, nor the sheer ambition and reach of Dubai.

But overall, Heathrow’s experience and reputation has been transformed beyond all recognition in ten years. So it can justifiably raise a glass to ten years of Terminal 5.

We welcome any thoughts and comments below: