Terminal velocity

They do say that when you’re writing this sort of thing, it’s important to keep your personal baggage out of it. Well, I’ve tried, but it’s going to be difficult to keep my personal baggage out of this one. My personal baggage, you see, is the crux of the matter. Because I flew into Heathrow from Aberdeen last Thursday afternoon, and although I made it home that day, my personal baggage got stuck in the Black Hole that is Terminal Five, only to emerge five days later.

And I’m one of the luckier ones. Centres in Manchester, Edinburgh and Milan are still sorting through somewhere around 19,000 bags — estimates vary — and 50 flights per day are still cancelled. It’s not the finest hour for British Airways, who have sole use of the Terminal, or BAA, who run it.

I have to say I had a feeling of impending doom as soon as the plane arrived at the terminal (two and a half hours late). The disembarking jetty remained stubbornly motionless for 20 minutes, while passengers shifted around restlessly in the aisle of the plane, because, the pilot explained, the operator’s key didn’t fit the control panel. Just as the ground crew were about to bring a set of comfortingly low-tech steps up, a supervisor arrived with a masterkey.

Once inside, it was apparent that while the terminal was nearly ready, it wasn’t quite there. The corridors from the gate to the baggage reclaim area were mostly missing their ceiling panels. Some signage was held on with gaffer tape. And more than 12 hours after the building opened, it appeared that several lifts weren’t working. Front-of-house might have been spick and span for the Royal Opening a fortnight earlier, but behind the scenes, the schedule was being taken to the wire. And slightly missing it.

And during my fruitless two hour wait in the baggage reclaim area, it was obvious that information was in short supply. BA staff, though as helpful as they could be, were thin on the ground and clearly as starved of useful information as were the passengers. All anyone knew was that Something Had Gone Terribly Wrong, and either there weren’t any back-up plans, or there were, but they weren’t working.

Two helpful staff were handing out bottles of water and biscuits. I couldn’t help thinking that they should have found a tea-urn. This is Britain. Everyone knows that everything’s better with a cup of tea.

All in all, a horrible, embarrassing, crushing disappointment for BA and BAA. And though it’s nice of BA chief executive Willie Walsh to assume full responsibility, it’s not quite clear what he thinks ‘full responsibility’ means. Maybe we’ll find out when the full cost of the fiasco becomes apparent.

What was most disturbing for me was overhearing all the remarks from disgruntled passengers blaming it all on ‘British engineering’. Terminal 5, along with the Channel Tunnel Rail Link, was the greater counter-argument to the doom mongers’ view of the industry. Ah, we’d say, yes, all these projects did overrrun, but Terminal 5 is the biggest construction project in Europe and it’s on time and on budget! Well, it appears that it wasn’t quite on time. And obviously, it didn’t work.

So, with Britain’s next mega-infrastructure project, the 2012 Olympics, about to enter its ‘Big Build’ phase (we overflew the Olympic site, and the outline of the stadium is now visible and surrounded with machinery), what lessons can be drawn from Terminal 5? From the point of view of one passenger, it seems that design and construction need to be more closely linked; that all systems need to have back-up plans; that dry-runs need to be extensive, large-scale and as realistic as possible; that staff need to be fully trained and have clear communication lines at all times; and that the systems that get staff into place are just as important as the ones they operate when they get there. Especially when there are a lot of people and a lot of systems, and security is tight.

We on The Engineer talk to a lot of talented, enthusiastic British technologists, and we know that projects that fail like this are actually the exception rather than the rule. We tend not to go along with the sneery and defeatist tabloid ‘Broken Britain’ line. The success of the Channel Tunnel Rail Link proves that we do have the expertise to design, operate and commission major, high-tech infrastructure projects (I used that just after it opened as well, and it was seamless, stressless and beautiful). Let’s hope that the Olympics team studies the Terminal 5 fiasco and learns its lessons. Because that’s one deadline that can’t be missed, and the eyes of the world — well, all the broadcasters in the world, anyway — will be watching.

Stuart Nathan, special projects editor (now reunited with his baggage)