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Mon 28 Jan 2008 04:00 AM

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BA’s T5 coup

London Heathrow Airport's new Terminal 5 will give international airports a run for their money.

As a cynical and seasoned journalist, I'm not one for believing the hype, but I have to concede, London Heathrow Airport's new Terminal 5 is as, if not more impressive than the press release reads.

The design-led, high-tech terminal, which is set to be the exclusive home for the UK's flag carrier British Airways when it opens its giant doors on March 27, really does "herald a new era in overseas air travel".

How do I know this, you may ask? Well, I was lucky enough to be one of three Dubai-based journalists invited by BA to visit the brand new facility last week - an offer not even the gruesome British winter weather would stop me from accepting.

Walking into the terminal, which is being tried and tested rigorously before passengers get anywhere near it, there is an immediate feeling of space and light - not a sensation usually associated with airports.

The design company, Rogers, Stirk, Harbour & Partners, has put a lot of thought into the ambiance, and it has paid dividends, but I suppose you'd expect nothing less from the firm responsible for creating iconic buildings such as the Pompidou Centre in Paris and the Lloyds TSB building in London.

However, what really makes this airport terminal stand out from any other - at first glance - is the check-in process - there are no check-in desks!

BA, which has worked closely with the British Airports Authority (BAA) to create T5, anticipates that 80% of customers will use its self-service channels to check-in and many will arrive having already checked in at home via ba.com and will have printed their boarding passes.

With this in mind, those that have checked in will take their luggage straight to the bag drop, while others will check-in at designated kiosks (don't worry, BA staff will be on hand to help for first-timers) and then go straight to the bag drop.

If in the unlikely event that these channels fail, or if customers cannot check-in themselves due to visa or ticketing issues, a sufficient number of customer service desks manned by BA staff are on hand as a last resort.

From here, passengers go through security, featuring the most high-tech systems I've ever seen at an airport, and BA guarantees that the whole process, from check-in, through security and into the main departures hall will not take more than 15 minutes.

The idea, says BA, is that the customer experience is "smooth, simple and stress-free" from start to finish.

If it works, it will put an end to the Heathrow misery that travellers have endured for years!

And even if the check-in and security procedures still prove stressful, once passengers are airside, their anxiety will subside when they see the wealth of facilities that waits.

Shopaholics will be is seventh heaven when they feast their eyes on the 144 retail outlets on offer, ranging from Tiffany, Mulberry and the first-ever Harrods fashion concept store, to F&B offerings including Gordon Ramsey's 'plane food' restaurant (an airport first), Krispy Kreme, Eat, Carluccio's and Apostrophe.

If you're economy class passenger, that's more than enough to keep you occupied - plus BA has gone all out to provide as many places to sit as possible, so there's no need to camp out on the floor in an untidy fashion.

But if you're a first or business class passenger, there's no limit to the lengths BA has gone to in order to keep you pampered until boarding time.

Forget that awful plaid '80s-style furniture that adorns BA's current T3 lounge and welcome to a world where up-and-coming designers have been allowed to leave their signature on the UK's largest free-standing building.

Passengers entering the Galleries Club Lounge (for business class/Club World travellers) are greeted by two giant black horse statues, each wearing a lampshade on their mane! It sounds ridiculous - and like Marmite, you'll either love it or you'll hate it - but it's a refreshing change from Chintz and brass fixtures and fittings.

Look out too for the 3-D etched-glass screens, the kinetic sculpture and "animated wallpaper", while in the Concorde Room, for first class and specially invited guests only, there's a moving hologram/3-D animation projected on the wall above a mock fireplace.

And don't forget the 'Gold Bar', covered in gold leaf and lit by a Swarovski crystal chandelier and the champagne bar - both in The Galleries First Lounge, while all premium guests are offered free treatments in the Elemis Travel Spa.

There's even a chance for first class passengers to take a nap in one of the bedrooms available on a first-come, first-served basis, while those arriving at T5 are invited into the Galleries Arrivals Lounge featuring a breakfast bar, work and entertainment facilities and a hydrotherapy area with 94 shower rooms.

The lounges alone have cost more than 60 million British pounds to build and with so much opulence, one might ask if this new facility has taken the environment into account?

Well, it has: 85% of waste from the project has already been recovered and materials have been recycled and used throughout the building process.

In addition, waste heat from an existing heat and power plant is being piped to the T5 energy centre to provide the building with 85% of its heat on demand.

BA claims that this saves around 11,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide per year.

In addition, energy is saved by controlling the lighting digitally, so individual lights can be turned on and off and the baggage systems and escalators benefit from variable speed drives, which slow them down then they are not used.

And importantly, waste from T5's rainwater harvesting and groundwater boreholes is being used to reduce the facility's demand on public water supply by 70%.

So, is there anything about T5 that should be criticised?

Well, there is nothing that springs to mind, although with the facility expected to receive 25 million passengers in its first year of operation, just five million short of its 30 million capacity, one wonders why BA and BAA didn't opt for an even larger terminal?

Like any facility of this nature, the proof will be in the pudding.

Many passengers will be satisfied enough if queuing for check-in and security for hours on end becomes a thing of the past.

As for BA's Middle East travellers, they'll get their first taste of T5 on April 30 - when phase two of the opening takes place and the majority of long-haul flights transfer from T3.

My advice to them is to meet BA half way and check-in online before they depart to make the travel experience as hassle-free as possible.

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