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Fri 16 Jan 2009 04:00 AM

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12 Hours at Terminal 5

It may sound like an ordeal, but Gemma Greenwood found it was only just time enough to sample all that this new airport terminal at London Heathrow has to offer.

It may sound like an ordeal, but Gemma Greenwood found it was only just time enough to sample all that this new airport terminal at London Heathrow has to offer.

Terminal 5 has had bad press since it opened on March 27.

The £4.3 billion (US $8.41 billion) terminal built exclusively to serve British Airways customers at London's Heathrow Airport was designed to make life simple for travellers.

Pre-opening, BA's general manager Asia and the Pacific, Robbie Baird, promised a "smooth, simple and stress-free" experience.

He told ATN that T5 had been designed to make sure there were no queues and noted the terminal's "very sophisticated security regime" and its "state-of-the-art" baggage system.

Instead, on day one, a combination of problems in car parks, airport areas, computer glitches and issues with getting baggage handling staff to their work stations saw T5 open to a disastrous start. Flights were cancelled and thousands of bags went missing.

But what many people don't realise is that these problems have long been rectified and T5 is now up-and-running, with around 95% of BA's flights running from the facility.

The terminal is five times bigger than BA's former long-haul base at Heathrow's Terminal 4, boasts six lounges for premium customers and the biggest retail offering of any UK airport.

ATN therefore decided to spend an action-packed 12 hours at T5 to make use of all the facilities and discovered there's plenty to keep passengers occupied.

9.30am: Arrive at T5

Arriving at Terminal 5 couldn't have been easier. By car, the facility was literally one minute from the M25 and there was a multi-storey car park with 4000 spaces. I was impressed by the car-finder service so you don't spend hours wandering aimlessly looking for your vehicle. It was a short walk to the departures area, which is absolutely huge and notably, there were no queues whatsoever.

In total there are 96 self service check-in kiosks and 140 customer service desks (including 96 fast bag drop facilities), as well as a dedicated check-in area for premium customers. When I arrived there were plenty of BA staff on hand to help passengers and check-in took just a few minutes, even though I didn't do so online before I left, which is recommended for the more forward-thinking traveller.

9.35am: Coffee break

With check-in completed in less than five minutes, it was time for a coffee with my family before heading through security.

We chose Italian chain Carluccio's for a quick cuppa and a chat. There are plenty of other stores including a news agency and a luggage shop on this giant concourse, which is light and airy, thanks to the contemporary and environmentally-friendly design.

10.30am: Security

This is the part that most people dread, but BA wasn't lying when it said the T5 security was state-of-the-art and designed to get travellers through in around 12.5 minutes. Even with the strict security measures that one would expect in place, this process took just 10 minutes in total.

10.40am: Lounging around

I was lucky enough to have access to all public areas of the airport, including the premium lounges, in order to carry out my undercover investigation. The BA staff had not been informed that I was writing a review to ensure I was not given any preferential treatment.

I decided to start my airside experience with a trip to the Galleries First Lounge, open to BA's First and Gold Executive Club members only. It's hard to know where to start as this lounge offers 542 seats and several features including the Gold Bar - covered in gold leaf and lit by a Swarovski crystal chandelier, as well as a Wine Gallery and a Champagne Bar.

I decided that a liquid lunch was out of the question given my task ahead so instead, I checked my emails and made a few phone calls. There are plenty of PCs to use as well as areas where you can use your laptop as WiFi is available.Every corner you turn there is food and drink - you can choose from a self-service buffet or table service if you wish. The décor of the lounge is contemporary and subtle - apart from the giant horse statues wearing lampshades that are the talking point as you enter the lounge.

1pm: Concorde revisited

I met with BA's T5 commercial change manager, Paul Nickson, for a chat and he suggested lunch in the Concorde Room (for First customers and specially-invited guests only). Here there is a restaurant-style area featuring several private booths - ideal for meetings - where waiter service is offered.

There is an extensive menu offering British favourites such as pies and bangers and mash, as well as salads, sandwiches, burgers and much more.

Post-lunch I checked out the rest of the lounge, which can accommodate up to 156 customers. Facilities include a Concorde bar (dedicated wine buyer included); a dedicated concierge desk run by exclusive members-only club Quintessentially; and a boardroom for meetings, which is decked out in seats from one of BA's Concorde aircraft. There are also three ‘hotel-style' bedrooms named cabanas where guests can eat, sleep or shower.

3pm: Retail therapy

When I heard T5 had the largest retail offering of any UK airport it was music my ears.

I'm a shopaholic who uses Duty Free prices as an excuse to go wild when travelling.

Around 5.5% of T5 is dedicated to retail space and there are 112 shops in total including 25 F&B outlets. Big spenders can choose from designer brands including Prada, Tiffany & Co, Mulberry, Paul Smith and the first-ever Harrods fashion concept store while mid-priced UK brands such as Reiss and Ted Baker are also on offer.

In addition there are shops selling more practical items such as luggage, electrical items, DVDs etc and Boots the chemist. If you don't have access to the premium lounges where the food is plentiful, do not fear, there are many bars, restaurants, cafes and fast food outlets with cuisine on offer ranging from healthy snacks to more calorific treats. Perhaps the standout restaurant is Gordon Ramsay's ‘Plane Food' outlet - an airport first for the celebrity chef who will soon be moving to Dubai.

6.45pm: Dinner and a movie

Thoroughly worn out from my retail marathon - I found T5 was a great place to buy Christmas presents - I decided to check out BA's lounge for Club World passengers, the Galleries Club Lounge, where there is no shortage of seats - try 830! I grabbed myself a cup of afternoon tea and checked my emails - there are many PCs you can use and unlike many airport lounges, the internet actually works and is fast.

The customer experience

ATN had a bangers-and-mash lunch at the Concorde lounge with BA's T5 commercial change manager, Paul Nickson, and asked him some quick-fire questions about what it is that makes this terminal special:

What are the main concepts behind the T5 experience?

This was a great opportunity to re-engineer everything and employ a lean methodology - to take the costs out of the business but in a way that provides added value. This is why we have a self-service strategy for check-in and in the lounges. At the moment, 75% of customers opt for the self-service method [of check-in] compared to 40% before. We've put customers back in control to reduce queues and hassle.

Has it worked?

Yes, our research has shown that 80% of customers check-in in five minutes or less and getting through security is now a five-minute proposition. Now the entire process [completing check-in and security] is 10 minutes for many - up in the 80s (for 80% of passengers).

What are the other big USPs?

The terminal is light and airy so at check-in there is a sense of calm and personal space. Another big one for us was flow of passengers. We wanted to design an intuitive building that customers flowed through. There are no barriers to passengers at check-in - at every check-in desk a lift takes baggage down. There is also a separate check-in area for First passengers.

We didn't have that at first, but customers demanded it. And then there are our lounges - we have six in total including a huge arrivals lounge, so there is a lot of differentiation between them.

In terms of the terminal itself, Gordon Ramsay's Plane Food restaurant is a first.

You can even get a picnic takeaway to eat on the plane.

Any other firsts?

Yes, our car recognition service at the pay stations so you don't lose your car. We also have 4000 parking spaces and the latest technology is employed - green lights show the vacant spaces.

Not only that but in all the lounges I visited there were hundreds of magazines and newspapers from which to choose covering all interests, from current affairs to sport and travel. The Galleries Club Lounge is very spacious and it's difficult to decide where to sit or where to eat.

Adjacent to the buffet stations are long communal benches where you can sit and socialise should you wish, but there are also more private areas in which to sit, as well as two ‘Silver Bars' where cocktails are the order of the day.

All of the lounges have kids facilities but in the Galleries Club Lounge the big kids hang out in the mini cinema where they can catch up on the latest news, sport or movie.

8.15pm: Time to spa

Having been so busy shopping and eating, I almost forgot to take advantage of the Elemis Spa facilities that are available to all premium passengers free of charge, so I hastily booked myself in for a neck and shoulder massage.

There is a main ‘chill out' area in the spa, surrounded by treatment rooms, each of which features a high-tech massage bed that even pummels your feet.

The chair reclines, your eyes are covered, some essential oils are applied to your pressure points and the therapist works her magic. It is then that you realise that a 15-minute treatment is not enough.

You want at least 30 minutes! Other treatments on offer include various facials, massages and even an ‘Exotic Hand and Arm Re-Energiser'.

9pm: Up, up and away

I needed five minutes recovery time before leaving the spa and making my way to the gate for my flight. A small train runs to the departure gates so there is no need to walk long distances.

If you arrive before boarding, there are more shops to keep you occupied as well as an additional lounge for BA's premium passengers.

I boarded BA109 headed for Dubai at 9pm in time for the 9.35pm departure and couldn't believe how quickly my 12 hours at T5 had passed.

Maybe next time I'll opt for 24 hours? After all, there's the arrivals lounge - complete with hydrotherapy showers and a suit-pressing service - to check out, not to mention the shops I missed the first time round!

The sales pitch

Getting there: By train: the Piccadilly line on London's underground system or the Heathrow Express service. By car: a new spur road has been built from the M25.

Transfers: As 95% of BA flights operate from T5, most passengers do not have to move from the terminal. The transfer area is located in the middle of the building and transfer channels are highlighted in purple.

Lounges: There are six: Concorde Room (first class customers and specially-invited guests); Galleries First Lounge (first class and Gold Executive Club members); two Galleries Club Lounges (for Club World, Club Europe and Silver Executive Club members); Galleries Arrivals Lounge (first class and Premier card holders) and Elemis Travel Spa.

Online check-in: Passengers can check-in online up to 24 hours before they fly and manage their booking by choosing their seat and printing out their boarding pass. This allows them to go straight to the bag drop when arriving at the airport. There are separate check-in areas for Club World and First passengers.

For a virtual tour of T5 visit www.terminal5.ba.com.

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