Heathrow T5 – what is going on?

Over the last couple of years since Heathrow’s Terminal 5 has been open I have tried very hard to be objective about the place. So it had its teething problems: baggage mountains appeared because the systems didn’t work properly and the security procedures after check-in are frankly still a disaster. Even a return to T4 would have been an acceptable alternative at one point. But now there is simply no reason to take your luggage into the cabin on a returning BA flight, because as soon as you have negotiated passport control it is already there waiting for you, revolving at a stately pace on one of the many carousels in the colossal baggage hall. There is no question that the place is a spectacular piece of engineering too; landing in the half dusk of a summer’s evening as the lights start to go on, the building shines like a crystal box that makes you want to look into it, inspiring a feeling of well-being. A friendly lantern on a dark night, it welcomes you home, dominating the eastern end of the main runways, making its own statement about who really owns Heathrow. Well, maybe I’m getting a bit carried away.

But I am sorry to say that I have finally arrived at the inescapable conclusion that the place is simply managed by imbeciles. Take last Thursday night as an example. We arrived on a fully loaded European short haul flight at around eight thirty in the evening. It was an Airbus 320, so not really so many people when you think of it. The main terminal beckoned in all its seductive and illuminated glory as we landed and taxied. We, however, stopped short at the C gates. Now, the C and B gates are in themselves quite impressive buildings and would probably be serious airport terminals in their own right if not for the dominance of the mother ship across the apron. Unfortunately there is a design flaw in the communication system: the shuttle train doesn’t travel direct. It has to go past terminal B on its way home to Mother. On the night in question only one line was operating, and that started the over-crowding problem. By the time we had stopped at the B gates to pick up all those people who had arrived from Hong Kong and were desperately wanting to end their journey too, it was not dissimilar to a London tube journey of the worst rush hour nightmare variety. The carriages were packed to absolute breaking point. At mother ship central, the escalators were not working ether. Not just one of them, but both. In fact one was even taped off, until some enterprising passenger decided sod this for a game and opened it up. The lifts … well there was no point in trying to get near the lifts.

Then came the killer blow – the UK Border, once known as Passport Control. Here adequate words to describe the scene simply fail me. The Iris and e-gates were backed-up to the rear wall of the building and the queue for the manned desks must have had ten or more turns in its snakelike journey and even then was similarly choked with arriving passengers. It was doing a very good job of masquerading as a queuing system for the rides at Universal Studios, where they are the world’s experts at the queuing game. I don’t recall how long exactly it took to get through, but it was agonizingly slow. At the end of all this it is to emerge facing a long glass wall of the type designed to allow Them to look out but not to let you look back in. At one end of which is a very large sign on a door that reads ‘Chief Duty Immigration Officer’. I assume this is a Very Important Person as otherwise one would assume a rather more discrete sign on the door would be in order. The question I ask is who is this Chief Duty Immigration Officer? Where is he when things get tough on the front line? You would have thought that at the very least he would be standing behind his troops, perhaps with one or two trusty lieutenants, urging them on in their difficult task with a few words of encouragement and perhaps exchanging a brief word of apology to the seriously inconvenienced passengers. Defusing the tension and explaining that circumstances are unusual and that even if he did have more staff, he couldn’t deploy them because there are no more desks for them to sit at. Perhaps offering a few words of hope about how good it will be when the e-gates are more widely deployed. Instilling confidence that he has a strategic plan to deal with the influx of all those passengers that are coming for the Olympics.

But no, he cannot do any of these things. Not because the e-gates are clearly substandard in comparison to the design and speed of those they have at Amsterdam or Lisbon airports. Not because he doesn’t have a plan for the Olympics (and anyway he’s determined to teach those elected Government ministers a lesson in what will happen if he doesn’t get the staff he says he needs). Not because there are never going to be enough desks, or that things just will never, ever, get any better at Heathrow. No, it is simply because he is a civil servant and actually he just doesn’t give a damn, because if he did, he would be doing something. He’s like all the other people who ‘manage’ Heathrow: he simply doesn’t know how to run an airport. Let’s just pack more of those passengers in, let’s just have another runway, let’s just encourage more and more transit passengers to clog up the system and provide little or no benefit to the country on their way through to some destination elsewhere. If they can’t manage Heathrow at its present capacity, how can anyone in Government even consider the prospect of giving them another runway to play with and even more people to cram through the system? It’s a bit like the Prison Service, in that it took someone a long time to work out that civil servants simply don’t have the skills to run such a large people-based organisation. No, you need a retired army General used to managing a hundred thousand soldiers to sort out that kind of a problem.

Oh and by the way, I am convinced that the Chief Duty Immigration Officer must be a man. No woman would ever allow such a disgrace to continue.

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