Terminal 5: My experience

Two weeks ago I found myself at Heathrow Terminal 5 bound for Los Angeles. Much has been said about this new building in the past month...most of it negative. So naturally I was on tender hooks wondering firstly if my flight would ever actually leave the UK and secondly if my luggage would accompany me on the same plane.

On entry to Terminal 5 from the Heathrow express, I found a confusing array of signs badly positioned so that I had to walk in the opposite direction to find out where I had to go. There were also a number of steel barricades at every entrance, meaning that you had to squeeze or lift all of your luggage over them to get through. As I went up the escalators, I ended up on a floor which had no way out. Looking confused, I wandered around looking for clues in what to do next. After a few minutes of walking the extremities of the floor, I realised the only way to departure was up...in fact via a lift - cleverly hidden from the view of oncoming pedestrians.

Finally on the floor I went to the BA desk, dropped off my bag and then looked for the way to through to security. "This way" the BA representive politely advised. Again no signage...

Eventually, found myself at the security check-in where I found a rather odd looking stainless steel conveyor belt manned by 6/7 people. I was asked to put my belongings and shoes into the standard plastic tray and continue though to the other end via the metal detector. In front of me I noticed a backlog of empty plastic trays which were holding up myself and the people behind me from picking up our belongings. So politely I picked them up and started to stack them on the side of the conveyor belt. I then heard a voice from the lady in front saying "No leave them there!, the machine will take them away". So I put them back and the three of us watched as the machine processed the trays in a painfully slow manner. As my tray appeared, I attempted to grab my shoes and put them on - but the tray kept moving and I almost lost my balance trying to take everything out before it dissapeared at the other end. The lady then explained that the cameras above can detect any items left in the trays and will stop the conveyor belt if they are not empty. I looked at the lady, as I put my things back in my pockets and enquired 'how I was suppose to know that?'. She replied that the process is meant for regular travellers, not one-off travellers. Hmmm, interesting...I wonder how they cope with one-off visitors who can't speak english.

Bemused by this response, I decided that I wanted to remember this 'experience'. So I took out my camera and took a couple of pictures of this 'high tech' machinery and then walked into the Sony Centre opposite to purchase a PSP.

"Oi!...OIIIII!!!!" I heard from behind me. I turned around to see a fuming BAA security guard who informed me that I was not permitted to take photos in Terminal 5 and that I had to delete the pictures in front of him. 'I had no idea I couldn't take photos' I told him. After all, there are no signs informing me otherwise. But, I complied with his demands whilst the Sony Centre staff looked over in disbelief. After the security guard had left, a Sony employee came over to me and said that BAA are 'very touchy' about bad press right now.

So which is worse? A gentle blog post about security check-ins and passenger mental models or this one? And of course, blogs rank higher in Google and Yahoo! search...so I'm going to get a lot more relevant readers than any traditional journalist will.

After I'd composed myself, I realised I had to send an important letter in my bag...so I went to WHSmith and asked for some first class stamps. The cashier informed me that they do not sell them, so I looked around the rest of the airport for a shop that sells stamps. It got a little desparate when I asked in the Sunglasses Hut - so I thought I had better ask at the information desk. The guy I spoke to said I should try WHSmith I told him I had already tried there, so he used his CB radio to call his colleagues and ask them the same question. 'Try WHSmith", I heard several times through the crackle of the loudspeaker. So the guy said sorry he couldn't help. So next I asked another information guy who informed me that because of the Queens visit a few weeks ago, all post boxes had been taken away as a security precaution - and therefore, there was no need to sell stamps.

Great. Thanks for that. A terminal built for business travellers indeed.

Ok, so despite this story the Terminal five building is spacious, modern and the retail outlets are some of the best I've ever seen at an airport. However, I suffered a 2 hour wait for my luggage when I returned from Los Angeles, the BA flight felt like it was run by Ryan Air and the rather pointless train to the gate made me and the carriage laugh as it travelled a whole 10 metres to its final destination. What was the point in that!!!

Terminal 5 will probably get better in time...it has to. A lot of money has been invested in this 'pinnacle' of British engineering. I just wish they had spent as much time thinking about the passenger as they did about the technology and retail space.