Paul Harris: 'No one had the faintest idea of why the hell it was all going wrong'


Last updated at 23:52 27 March 2008

Eevrything seemed to be going so well.

The glass and steel of the new terminal was glinting spectacularly in the sunlight and the flights were all marked up in order.

Everywhere you looked, a perky young thing in a "Can I Help You?" T-shirt had taken up position to await the incoming travellers.

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Check-in here for chaos: Disgruntled passengers find Terminal Five is much the same as Terminal One, Two, Three and Four

Check-in here for chaos: Disgruntled passengers find Terminal Five is much the same as Terminal One, Two, Three and Four

Coffee machines burbled and hissed in the cafes. Chauffeurs and taxi drivers lined up alongside waiting families.

Why, even the first flight had touched down eight minutes early.

But oh, dear. Then came the rest of the arrivals. And Heathrow's much-trumpeted Terminal Five was transformed from a proud landmark in the history of air travel to another miserable shambles in the life of our busiest airport.

If only all those passengers hadn't had so much luggage. If only the escalators hadn't broken. Or the computers hadn't rejected the passwords. And the car park had been finished. And those early flights hadn't left without the luggage.

And more than 30 departures hadn't had to be cancelled, and check-in desks suspended. Or even if the payphones and cash machines had worked.

And if only anyone had the faintest idea where anything was in this £4.3billion terminal, or - in particular - what the hell was going wrong.

So, as it turned out, Day One of T5 wasn't quite the triumph predicted.

"Teething troubles" was how British Airways dismissed it.

"A few minor problems" was the phrase airport operator BAA preferred, and, to be fair, the failures were probably easy enough to fix given time.

But if you were unlucky enough to find yourself stuck inside T5 yesterday, you would be entitled to ask why no one got it sorted out before opening for business.

With shameless bravado, BAA's strategy director Mike Forster had promised no problems.

"We have a world-class baggage system that is going to work perfectly on day one," he declared.

Really? Would that be the same baggage system that collapsed some time before 11am and threw the entire day into chaos?

"There have been some baggage performance issues," a BA spokesman told me.

There certainly had. And you had only to study the stunned expressions of those emerging from the baggage hall to realise what a nightmare it must have been.

The "state of the art" luggage system involves ten miles of belts and tracks and is capable of handling up to 12,000 bags an hour.

Problem is, no one said which hour.

Chauffeur Ivan Stuparich was waiting to meet Mr Michael Barnfield from a Miami flight.

He had parked his Mercedes at 09:21, according to the stamp on his entry ticket. He didn't know it then, but he would have another two hours and 40 minutes to wait.

Somewhere airside, Mr Barnfield, an insurance broker, had already landed and disembarked. Alas, his luggage had not.

He and fellow passengers were taken on an unscheduled tour that involved four flights of escalators (these ones were working); a coach ride; and being led through what he described as a filthy corridor to the terminal.

Landside at last, but still visibly angry, he told me: "I spent 40 minutes going through immigration - and I'm a Brit, for God's sake. Then we had to wait another hour before our bags arrived.

"I fly six times a month and I can tell you it's utter chaos here today. There are bound to be teething problems, but jeez, this is ridiculous."

Up in departures, a woman on all fours appeared to be finishing the grouting on some tile flooring. Bob the Builder style banging emanated from behind various panels.

Just before 11am, a public address announcement apparently heralded those "baggage performance issues" - but the sound was so bad, only a handful of people seemed to hear it. (I asked a "Can I Help You" girl what the announcement had said. She told me she couldn't help).

Meanwhile 300 protesters demonstrating against Heathrow expansion began stripping down to red T- shirts and massing in the centre of the arrival hall, ringed by machine-gun police - all less than conducive to smooth running on this historic day.

BA later admitted that, despite pre-launch rehearsals, there had been a problem with "staff familiarisation-with the terminal".

Did that mean no one knew where anything was, I asked?

"It's a very big new terminal," came the diplomatic reply.

Both BA and BAA conceded T5 might need what they called "a bedding down period" - although they probably weren't referring to two hours' kip in the baggage hall.

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