Why: Heathrow Airport Terminal 5's High Tech Failings

London Heathrow airport's latest building, Terminal 5, launched last month after almost two decades of planning, $8.5 billion dollars in cost, and 100 million hours in manpower. It is a glass and concrete and steel marvel, the largest free standing building in the UK, with over 10 miles in suitcase moving belts, and was supposed to be a cure for the Airport's famous congestion by way of massive automation. But on its opening day it just did not work right. This week, British Airways' plans to move its long haul operations from the crowded main terminal to the new terminal were pushed back til June. Much of the press was quick to say that tech was the source of the failings in parking, luggage handling and check in, but here are the details I can find on what exactly caused endless lines and delay for so many passengers of Terminal 5.



Road signs pointing to garages were said to be misleading, and some signs inside the garages were inaccurate. Furthermore, there were complaints about problems paying for parking and exiting the structures.

Check In

On day one, check in counters were not open at 4am, meaning some ticketholders had to start lining up, causing a backlog that certainly didn't help the launch. By noon, 20 flights had been canceled because of baggage handling problems.



Here's the heart of the issue at Terminal 5's launch. The luggage system was designed to be streamlined as a checkpoint for travelers, on the way to the plane.

BAA also enthuses about technology like the baggage drop, which hoists suitcases to an underfloor belt, enabling passengers to walk forward to departures rather than turning around. "It's on the way, not in the way," quips Ms. Kearney.


The 10 miles of belts are capable of handling 12,000 items of luggage in an hour. But on day one, workers, presumably understaffed, were unable to clear incoming luggage fast enough, causing +2 hour delays at baggage claim. On the other side of things, the system reported to handlers that flights that were awaiting luggage had already left. Instead of loading suitcases on planes, they took them back to the terminal for the next flight. So, a few planes took off with empty cargo holds.

Exaggerating all of this, the belt system jammed at one point. Sometime on day one, the airlines had no choice but to only check in those without baggage.


To add insult to injury, the Terminal 5 system has also lost the luggage of a passenger who died traveling back from Hong Kong, who is a son of an ex British Airways employee. He said, "To lose the luggage of a dead person is unforgivable."

In the end, British Airways has claimed responsibility for 15,000 bags were stranded at Heathrow. There is speculation that this number may have been has high as 20,000.


Flight Control

Not much went wrong here. Thank god. Last I checked, there were weather related delays, but that's not something you can plan to avoid. But the problems with check ins, resulting from lines and baggage problems, did result in 34 flights being canceled on day one.


"Twenty security lanes promise speedier passage, though domestic travelers will now be fingerprinted."

Since people couldn't get through check in and baggage handling issues, security was probably not taxed.


Being nerds, you'd be right to suspect that all of this could have been caught by beta testing. Thorough runs of all systems, from the "toilets to check in and seating" took place over 6 months before opening, including 4 full scale runs, using 16,000 volunteers from September 2007 to March 2008. That leaves not much time at all to deal with major issues, since it launched that month.


In truth, they'll get this stuff ironed out. Eventually.

Terminal 5, by the numbers:

Cost: £4.3bn

Construction: September 2002 to March 2008

Number of passengers annually: 30 million

Phase 1: opening 2008 Terminal 5A and B

50 aircraft stands (total)

Phase 2: opening 2010 Terminal 5C

60 aircraft stands (total)

Terminal 5A dimensions: 396m long x 176m wide x 40m high

Levels above ground: 4

Terminal 5B dimensions: 442m long x 52m wide x 19.5m high

Levels above ground: 3

Multi-storey car park: 3,800 spaces

Sofitel London Heathrow Hotel: 605 rooms (opens June)

Rail links: Heathrow Express

London Underground Piccadilly Line

Check-in self service kiosks: 96

Check-in fast bag drops: over 90

Check-in standard desks: 54

Security zones: 2 (north and south)

Security lanes: 20

Baggage reclaim belts: 11

Length of bag conveyers: 17 km

No of bags processed per hour: 12,000

Number of lifts: 192

Number of escalators: 105

Number of seats: 9,140 (excluding catering outlets)

Number of toilet blocks: 112

Number of toilets: 800

Number of baby change facilities: 32

Childrens' play areas: 3 (for toddlers to 7 year olds)

Number of retail facilities: 112 (including 25 food and drink outlets)


[CS Monitor, Forbes, NYTimes, NYTimes, BBC, Airport-Technology, BAA]

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