I hadn't intended to have anything with the opening of Terminal 5 but I have always had a secret dream (you're going to be deeply disappointed by my mundane dream life). The dream goes a little something like this: I am the sort of person that possesses skills that are so inherently valuable, marketable and desirable that NGOs call me up and say, 'Get on the next plane to [insert foreign capitol here]. We're arranging everything but you must go now! It's extremely urgent.' Of course it's a fantasy as most organizations plan their staffing well in advance and avoid the cost of next-day plane flights. And, of course, I do not possess a skill set such that organizations fly me out the next day. However, sometimes...sometimes (!!) an emergency does arise and it is in the small hope that they will turn to me that I have continued to foster the dream.
Well, much to my delight an organization did need me urgently last week and needed to me to come and interview for a job. 'Fly to Geneva,' they said. 'Now.' They said. 'I have meetings in London,' I said. 'Just come for a day,' they said. 'We'll arrange everything,' they said. Two hours later my flights, train and taxis were ready to go, all pleasantly arranged by a woman with a lilting French-Swiss accent I could listen to all day. I was to fly the following day. Al Gore would be ashamed of my carbon footprint that by now is knee-deep but sometimes you just have to live the dream - even if it means future generations of school children having to ask...'what was the 'Arctic' again?'.
The next morning I turned up at Terminal 5 just as it was opening. This might not excite you because, well, you are a normal human being with a normal life and interests but it did excite me. You see, T5 (as we 'insiders' call it) is the new terminal at Heathrow - an airport I would despise landing in if it meant that you were arriving in any place besides London. But, T5 was supposed to be the answer to all Heathrow's problems - the over-crowding, the ugliness, the long waits - but it then failed to deliver on any of these in a beautifully understated, passive-aggressive way that was nothing less than quintessentially British.
At 8:00 in the morning the cameras at passport control weren't working well, the scanning system at security is so high-tech, badly designed, and persnickety that it refuses to operate in, well, standard operating conditions. It is as if no one expected that there would be, 1) planes, 2) passengers, or 3) luggage to ever use the terminal. My initial flight was delayed 1 hour 40 minutes because they couldn't get the luggage to the plane.
But, Starbucks was giving out free mugs so it's not like it was a total loss.
After several hours of meetings in Switzerland I returned to the airport. There were lines of people at the British Airways counter. They were yelling at the staff. The staff were yelling back. The friend with me said that she'd never seen anything like it...except in movies, and then it was Americans. It was unbelievable. We learned that there were 10,000 people stuck in Heathrow because the new terminal had gone into meltdown. 12,000 bags had piled up before anyone grasped the extent of what was going wrong. Bags couldn't reach the planes so planes couldn't leave meaning they couldn't get to their destinations in order to return. I would have to stay in Geneva overnight. Worse things have happened and, luckily, I had no meetings early the next morning but there were stories of people missing weddings, and elderly people with nowhere to go sleeping on the floor. The place did look like a homeless shelter when I returned.
And returning was not entirely uncomplicated either. We managed to arrive on time but sat for 40 minutes on the runway because they couldn't find a gate. We spent another 40 minutes waiting for them to figure out how to get the jetway attached to the airplane so we could disembark. So, my advice is avoid Terminal 5 at all costs. Heck, avoid British Airways. They're not all that great either. The following day I had to fly from Terminal 4 to the States and that had become chaos because they have switched flights back from T5 and rebooked people.
I would like to say that all of this hasn't left me so inwardly bemused and happy but it has. I did get to live a secret dream and schadenfruede runs deep. America might have Iraq but Britain has T5. And it looks like it might take both of us just as long to extract ourselves from each situation as it does the other.