Vowing End to 'Heathrow Hassle,' London Expands Bursting Airport

British Airways (BAY) and Spanish-owned BAA promise the new building will eradicate not only queues and lost bags, but ease delays and general travel stress too.

LONDON (MarketWatch) -- At the headquarters of Heathrow airport's operator, BAA, employees drink tea out of "Making Heathrow Great" mugs.

A few miles away, at the home of flagship carrier British Airways PLC, impatient executives watch a clock that's counting down the hours to the opening in March of the airport's much-hyped and long-awaited Terminal 5.

There's a good reason British Airways and BAA, who have toiled together on the 4.3 billion-pound (about $9 billion) project for more than two decades, are on edge.

The very future of Heathrow as a key European travel hub hangs in the balance.

In the last two years, the reputation of the airport has taken a battering. The phrase "Heathrow hassle" has entered the lexicon, coined by passengers tired of creaky infrastructure, endless queues caused by new security and the recurring menace of lost luggage.

In a 2007 survey of travelers published last month by Web site TripAdvisor, Heathrow tied with Chicago's O'Hare as the world's least favorite international airport.

As Tony Douglas, the airport's former chief executive, put it when he resigned earlier this year, Heathrow is "bursting at the seams," crippled by delays and increasingly unable to process 68 million passengers a year in a structure intended for 45 million.

The threat of the airport losing its dominance in the U.K. and Europe is a real one, with budget-conscious travelers flocking to smaller, less crowded facilities and international business travelers increasingly preferring to touch ground in Paris, Amsterdam or Frankfurt.

It's no wonder then, that as March 27 draws closer, T5 is being promoted as the panacea to all travel ailments.

British Airways (BAY) and Spanish-owned BAA promise the new building will eradicate not only queues and lost bags, but ease delays and general travel stress too.

Even British Airways Chief Executive Willie Walsh can barely mask his impatience, saying in a speech this fall that T5 was "crucial" to the airline's long-term future and wasn't coming a "moment too soon."

MarketWatch earlier this month gained access to the building and spoke to top executives in charge of the project to understand how much it will change the Heathrow experience.

A long time coming

British Airways has been waiting for a new Heathrow home for more than 20 years.

While the original design for T5 was approved in 1989, it wasn't until 11 years later, following a comprehensive public inquiry, that planning consent was granted. Construction began in September 2002 on a swamp between the airport's two runways.

The final structure, the size of 13 American football fields, is the largest free-standing building in Britain. The facility includes a baggage system that can handle 12,000 suitcases an hour on 18 kilometers (11 miles) of conveyer belts.

Jonathon Counsell, head of T5 development for British Airways, stressed the central role given to the luggage system as the facility evolved.

"Most airports consist of a luggage system built around a terminal. This is a terminal built around a luggage system," he said in an interview.

The system is so essential to the smooth running of the terminal that it has been tested nonstop for the past year. It was, after all, the failure of its luggage setup that made Denver International a case study in how not to open an airport. There, in April 1994, airport authorities treated reporters to a demonstration of the automated luggage system only to see most of the bags thrown off the belts. The airport's opening was delayed; eventually the luggage system was scrapped.

Given the extensive testing of the baggage system at T5, passengers shouldn't be treated to scenes of strewn luggage in London come March. What will capture their attention instead, both British Airways and BAA fervently hope, is the quality of the building itself.

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