I spent the morning pretending to be a passenger at Heathrow’s Terminal 5 so that they can test their services with “live people”. Today was apparently their first big test, with some 2,000 members of the public turning up to play in the terminal.

There were problems in the morning getting to the meeting point – a distinct lack of sensible signage and staff in clearly identifiable clothing – so by the time I got the hotel just outside the airport, I was actually in quite a bad mood and when the queue was badly managed inside the hotel, I very nearly walked out. But I stayed.

Once we had registered and had bags searched (and a reminder that my camera was not to be used – meh!) there was a short PR video presentation and then we were bussed to the terminal itself.

One thing that is not pointed out anywhere is how high the entrance is – it is on the top floor and the views from the coach as we went up the ramp to the drop off point are absolutely stunning. We could easily see all the main London landmarks, the Wembley Arch, The Gherkin, Tower 43 and the Canary Wharf cluster of offices. To the other side, somewhat clearer – is a very good view of Windsor Castle. I would guess that the Castle would be visible from the top of the public car park if anyone wants to go back for a photo session when the place is open to the public ;)

Anyhow – once off the bus and into the terminal building itself. The outside of the building looks a bit bland frankly, but as most people will spend most of their time inside, this is not a major issue – and inside is certainly a sight to see. Vast open areas and the massive steel supports are quite awesome. It was difficult to fully appreciate the view as there is still a lot of scaffolding around, but you could still get an impression of what the place will be like when it is finished.

Inside Heathrow Terminal 5

What I was surprised to learn is that there is a secondary building (I really should have known about it though) and that there is an underground shuttle railway which takes passengers to that. What a pity it wasn’t a cable-car ;)

Overall, the checking in worked well – and then through to security – where they are introducing a new idea, biometrics. Your fingerprints are scanned and a photo is taken and then you are through. The main reason is that this extra level of security allows them to share the departure lounge with both internal and international flights rather than being segregated. This should cut costs in staffing numbers, while also allowing the ubiquitous retail outlets to take up less space as they don’t need to be duplicated.

A nice touch is that the seats in the departure lounge are made of a fairly stiff rubber, which gives them durability – but they are also quite comfortable to sit on. Well, comfortable by normal airport standards!

Then a problem occurred – not sure what it was as no one actually told us – but it seems that an IT failure occurred and the flight I was supposed to be taking was delayed for about half an hour. Very tedious, but I had a magazine to read. I so wish we could have taken photos, as the huge glass vistas really are quite amazing, and as we were all just hanging around for a while, it would hardly have been problematic for them.

Once we went through boarding, we then immediately returned and went through Arrivals and passport control to test that. Didn’t get to go on a plane :(

Then out and onto a bus and back to Hatten Cross tube station and home.

Oh, and we got a goody bag with a few knickknacks inside.

It was an OK experience, and nice to see the inside of the terminal building in its near-finished state – and the building does indeed look quite amazing.

While the BA and airport staff inside the Terminal building were professional and polite – I am still a bit irritated about the lack of “polish” in the staff before we got to the Terminal itself. Compared to the wonderful experience I had when doing the testing at the Eurostar last month, where there was a very real effort made to make us feel welcome and appreciated – somehow, I got the feeling from T5 that we were just cattle to be herded through. Not nice.

Obviously, when the place is open – it will be the staff inside the Terminal we deal with, and they were excellent.

Anyhow – if you fancy a morning out at T5, they are going to be running more of the big trials in Jan and Feb – details here.

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