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Mail & Guardian Online reporter and Sapa, Sapa-AFP27 Mar 2008 22:00
The opening day of Heathrow airport’s new Terminal Five descended into chaos on Thursday, with flights cancelled, baggage delayed and long queues, while protesters rallied against further expansion.
British Airways (BA), the only airline using Terminal Five, was forced to cancel 34 flights and apologise for “teething problems” only weeks after the huge new building was inaugurated by Queen Elizabeth II.
CNN and Sky News showed long queues of passengers stranded at the airport after their flights had been cancelled. Some passengers were told they could get on their flights but had to leave their baggage behind, television news reports said.
According to CNN, only BA flights to Moscow, Hong Kong and Johannesburg left with all baggage aboard.
“We sincerely apologise to customers who have suffered disrupted journeys or baggage delays,” a BA spokesperson said, adding that passengers on some flights would only be able to take hand baggage after luggage check-in was suspended.
“We are working extremely hard on solutions to these short-term difficulties,” he added at the end of the day.
The terminal cost Â£4,3-billion and is the first addition for 20 years to Heathrow, one of the world’s busiest airports.
But within minutes of the first flight arriving from Hong Kong 10 minutes ahead of schedule, passengers began reporting problems ranging from getting lost to waiting ages for luggage.
“It took an hour for our bags to come through from the time we landed,” said Mike Salinger, who travelled from Hong Kong with his wife, Denise, to the new terminal at Heathrow, to the west of the British capital.
Beatles producer George Martin was among those caught up in the chaos: he arrived two hours early for a flight to Zurich, only to find it over-booked by BA.
BA admitted there were problems, but sought to play them down and said they would be rapidly resolved.
“We have had a few minor problems ... This is not unexpected following one of the most complex and largest airport moves in history,” the airline said in a statement half way through the day. “These teething problems have included car parking provision, delays in staff security screening and staff familiarisation with the terminal. We have also had some luggage performance issues.”
The new terminal, which has been 15 years in planning and construction, will be able to handle 30-million passengers a year.
Heathrow, used by 68-million passengers a year, is already one of the world’s biggest airports, but has for years been plagued by overcrowding in its hotch-potch of ageing buildings due to soaring demand for air travel.
Some passengers were impressed. “It all seems very efficient. Everything is positive,” said Andrew Fensome (37), who arrived on the first flight with his wife, Nicola.
But Londoner Agar Burton, meeting his wife, Andrea, from the flight, was less positive. “One of the lifts was not working, the signs are not clear and you’re not sure where you are. It doesn’t seem very user-friendly,” he said.
The opening also saw 250 protesters stage what was billed as a “flash mob” demonstration against plans for further expansion plans, which include a proposed third runway at Heathrow.
The protesters, who had scheduled the protest in advance rather than spontaneously announcing it as a genuine flash-mob event, stripped off their outer clothes to reveal red T-shirts with the slogan “Stop airport expansion”.
Heathrow’s logistics director, Shaun Cowlam, acknowledged the initial difficulties, but said they would be fixed. “Most airports open with difficulties. Looking at where we are now—is it perfect? Not in every respect,” he said, but added: “I would say so far, so good. I am cautiously optimistic.”
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