27 March 2008 was all meant to go swimmingly.
This was the day that London Heathrow Terminal 5 would begin passenger operations.
Her Majesty The Queen had officially opened London Heathrow Terminal 5 just short of two weeks before. Hundreds of passengers had volunteered to take part in pre-opening trials. The airline was at pains to emphasise that it had learnt the lessons of teething problems at Denver and Madrid airports The baggage system had been put through its paces for months. Frequent flyers were to look forward to a brand new £60m “Galleries” lounge complex.
BA promised its frequent flyers that the terminal would be “So calm, you’ll simply flow through.” Such was BA’s confidence in its promise of “no queuing” the terminal didn’t even have a dedicated business class check-in at launch. A TV advert featuring fish swimming through the terminal was ready to air.
BA was the exclusive tenant of Heathrow’s first new terminal in more than 20 years and as the home to almost all of its Heathrow flights it would transform its presence at the airport.
On opening day, then BA CEO Willie Walsh was to greet passengers arriving on the first flight at Terminal 5 from Hong Kong and usher in a new era for the airline.
And then, it was chaos.
“So calm, you’ll simply flow through.”
A combination of factors collided.
BA employees could not park their cars in the staff car parks nor get through security screening. There were problems with the baggage system. Scores of flights were cancelled and thousands of bags misplaced. BA and BAA (then owners of Heathrow) briefed against each other in the next day’s newspapers. By BA’s own admission afterwards, delays in construction had truncated necessary time for familiarisation and testing.
Judging by TV news coverage on the night of the opening BA’s PR department was clearly not prepared and a media storm ensued for weeks. Naomi Campbell was arrested and charged with assaulting two police officers after being told before take off one of her bags was missing. Calvin Harris claimed he lost his album after BA mislaid his bag. Virgin Atlantic revelled in BA’s misfortunes.
The move of a second wave of long-haul flights from Terminal 4 was delayed. BA and BAA were summoned to appear before a House Of Commons Select Committee and two senior executives departed the airline.
“Fit For Five”
Terminal 5 was a huge challenge in more ways than one.
Not just because of the protracted planning process behind its construction. Its architect Richard Rogers started work on the design of the terminal in 1989. The planning enquiry began in the 1990s.
For BA itself, the move was a challenge which some external commentators thought near impossible.
Before Terminal 5, its operations were largely split between Terminal 1 (now demolished) and Terminal 4, with a single flight to Miami from Terminal 3.
Before its opening BA was one of the worst airlines in Europe for lost baggage partly because a security alert, which to this day limits liquids in hand baggage, put pressure on the airport’s infrastructure. Breakdowns in the baggage system and overcrowding in the terminals were a common occurrence. It had a similarly bad reputation for punctuality. This wasn’t helped by the fact that as Terminal 4 was located south of the south runway, you had to cross an active runway then arriving / departing from the north runway.
BA’s own restrictive practices did not help either. Although BA had been under considerable reform for many years with former CEO Rod Eddington making sweeping job cuts, its ground staff working practices were left largely untouched and remained a legacy of BA’s predecessor airlines BEA at Terminal 1 and BOAC at Terminal 4.
And BA at Heathrow was often an industrial relations pressure cooker, with wildcat industrial action by its ground staff in the summers of 2003 and 2005. So much so that when Willie Walsh was appointed CEO in 2005 The Economist speculated whether the move would result in the aviation equivalent of the 1980s Wapping dispute when Rupert Murdoch confronted the print unions. A long campaign to ready staff for the move known as “Fit For Five” allayed such concerns.
“Terminal 5 Is Working”
BA’s operation at Terminal 5 did soon settle down after launch.
Its advertising agency of the time, BBH, launched a “live” advertising campaign under the banner “Terminal 5 is working” featuring operational statistics from the previous day.
To the present day, the terminal has undergone modest changes. BA is now longer the sole tenant as Iberia moved into the terminal in 2012. American Airlines is working on plans to move some flights to Terminal 5. A new First Wing opened in 2017 to provide direct access to lounges from security for First Class passengers and Gold Card holders. BA’s expansive Galleries lounge complex is due to be refurbished in the coming years.
Terminal 5 has been no panacea for many of Heathrow’s operational constraints, nor does it give BA immunity from its recurring IT issues.
However, BA and Heathrow can say with some justification that after a difficult start it has helped significantly improve the reputation of the airport and BA’s own performance which, as the airport’s biggest operator, has a significant impact on the airport as a whole.