It's in the wings

Is relief in sight for harried fliers at Europe's biggest airport? Four months before Heathrow's Terminal 5 is to open, officials gave media a sneak peak at the futuristic facility, which they hope will dispel images of weary crowds searching for lost bags and waiting for late fights.

"It's been 20 years in the making," Nick Ziebland, retail strategy director of BAA, the airport's operator, said last week during the tour of the light-filled, spacious terminal, which will be used by British Airways and its subsidiaries starting March 27.

Heathrow, built to manage 45 million passengers a year, is now coping with 68 million. Terminal 5, with capacity for 30 million annual passengers, should help alleviate the load. The new facility has 29 security machines to scan luggage and customers.

"We expect to process 95% of the passengers through security in five minutes," said BAA spokesman Ben Morton. Check-in can be done the traditional way at 150 desks or at one of 96 self-service kiosks.

Security and passport checks should be fast enough for passengers to enjoy the open-air feeling of the departure area on two levels, where designer stores will compete with gourmet restaurants and views that stretch over the runways and west to the regal towers of Windsor Castle or east to the London skyline.

Michelin-starred chef Gordon Ramsay will open a 180-seat restaurant, Plane Food, offering gourmet meals at reserved tables, for those who have factored in the time, or a guaranteed one-hour service for diners in a hurry.

Harrods, Paul Smith, Tiffany and Prada are some of the retail names. If you like the decor, pictures or the sofa in Paul Smith's designer clothes store, you can buy an item and have it shipped home. Harrods will have clothes and accessories rather than tourist wares. ("Not a teddy bear in sight," Ziebland said.)

Big, bright Terminal 5 was designed by Richard Rogers, the British architect known for the glass-and-steel Pompidou Centre in Paris. Everything is visible, including infrastructure within the ceiling and massive tubular steel pillars that support the glass-vaulted roof.

Sixty flight gates are attached to the new facility. For some passengers flying out of the T-5B annex, the trip will include a ride on a 160-foot-plus escalator, one of the longest in Europe, and an underground shuttle train. Arriving and leaving involves minimal walking.

Absent-minded owners can find their cars in the 3,800-space garage with electronic help from machines.

Despite the prospect of a new, efficient terminal, some observers are cautious.

"The concept is fantastic, but it has to work," said travel agent Joan Budgen, retail manager for Eton Travel in Windsor, who has worked in the business for 35 years. "I've spoken to many customers about and at Heathrow. I've listened to them standing in security queues for an age, and one American customer has told me he'd now rather route his traveling through Frankfurt [Germany] than London."

What will happen to the rest of Heathrow?

"Over the next 18 months or so, we plan to knock down Terminal 2, which no one will miss," Morton said of the crowded hub for European flights. "Eventually, we envision a new terminal, Heathrow East, mainly for European airlines."

Terminals 1, 3 and 4 will remain but be remodeled over time.

For now, European airlines are concentrating on negotiations with BAA to move out of Terminal 2.

Naomi Dulfer, representative for Air France and KLM, both members of the SkyTeam air alliance, said: "We are planning to move with other members to Terminal 4. But there are still discussions about this move, and we are not yet making plans about Heathrow East."

Lufthansa spokesman Aage Duenhaupt said his airline, with others in the Star Alliance, would move to Terminal 1 in October 2008, where, he added, "We plan to upgrade our services to offer, especially, a fast-track check-in and faster security checks."

Concurrent with the launch of Terminal 5, an "open skies" agreement that loosens restrictions on flights between the U.S. and the European Union will take effect.

The much-coveted routes between Heathrow and the U.S. have been dominated by a handful of carriers. Now, other airlines will get a shot too.

Some slots already have been claimed. For instance, in a joint venture, Air France next year will run a daily flight to Los Angeles, and Delta will offer two daily flights to New York and one to Atlanta. And last week, US Airways announced it will fly to Heathrow from Philadelphia next year.

In another piece of good news for travelers, Britain's strict security rules, which limit fliers to one carry-on item, may be loosened soon. The rules, imposed in 2006 after a bomb scare, have contributed to a surge in checked bags that has overwhelmed Heathrow's facilities.

The BAA is negotiating with the British government to allow two pieces of hand luggage to be taken aboard, BAA representatives said. But as of last week, no date had been set to change the rules at Heathrow.