Heathrow's New Terminal a National Joke

One week after it opened, Heathrow Airport's Terminal 5 is cause for deep embarrassment for British Airways and the London airport's owners. Flights are still delayed, and thousands of passengers are still without their luggage.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

You were not a lucky customer if you were booked through London's Heathrow Airport sometime in the past week. Problems at the new Terminal 5 have caused hundreds of flight cancellations and thousands of lost bags. The saga of crashing computers, snagged conveyor belts and undertrained staff has been a huge embarrassment for British Airways.

Vicki Barker reports from London.

VICKI BARKER: The last stop on London's Piccadilly line. Just a handful of travelers step out into the steel and glass colossus that is Terminal 5, the terminal that was supposed to end Heathrow's status as the least popular airport in Europe.

Mr. GRANT SWAYNE (Traveler): We probably lost our luggage because it was in transit for over a day from San Francisco.

BARKER: Grant Swayne has four hours to kill here, ample time to assess the new terminal.

Mr. SWAYNE: It's a mess, it's the - see, you can see it's not been finished. There's dust.

BARKER: Architect Richard Rogers said he wanted Terminal 5 to be the new front door into the U.K. It's certainly bright and airy, but Swayne's wife, Jennifer(ph), says the building is…

Ms. JENNIFER SWAYNE (Traveler): Characterless. We've been to other airports and they have been - you knew where you were. Here, you could be anywhere, it doesn't tell you anything.

BARKER: In the latest addition to a week-long epic catalog of woes, hundreds of passengers had to be evacuated from the first-class lounge after the toilets backed up. And British Airways has been forced to admit that seven days on, it just can't cope with the Everest of lost bags left over from the terminal's first chaotic day. They're being trucked to Italy to be sorted and rerouted from there. That could take another week.

BA is still canceling about 20 flights a day. Some planes have taken off without any checked bags at all as workers struggle to operate the high-tech, high-speed and apparently, highly strung conveyer belts.

Mr. NICK RICKS(ph) (GMB Union): Obviously, passengers and customers are being very upset about what has been taking place. And of course, they've been taken their frustrations out on our staff.

BARKER: Nick Ricks of the GMB Union, which represents many airport workers. He says there have been some ugly scenes.

Until last week's debacle, Terminal 5 was on time and on budget, considered a promising sign of Britain's ability to prepare for the 2012 Olympic Games in London.

This week, BA learned that the Olympic torch will not, after all, arrive at the Terminal 5 this weekend. It will pass through Heathrow's aging VIP reception center instead.

Mr. WILLIE WALSH (Chief Executive, British Airways): Well, it definitely wasn't our finest hour and we've clearly disappointed a lot of people, and I sincerely apologize for that.

BARKER: BA's chairman, Willie Walsh. He was hailed as the airline's savior when he came on board two and a half years ago after turning around the Irish carrier Aer Lingus. Now, he's fighting to hold on to his job.

This has not been a week to feel proud about being British, as passenger Gavin Swayne admits.

Mr. GAVIN SWAYNE (Passenger): I've always thought Heathrow is one of the worst airports in the world. I was hoping that Terminal 5 would make difference so I could be proud to be British. But so far, the jury's out. The jury's out on this one.

(Soundbite of music)

BARKER: The saga has already entered folk consciousness with an Internet game called "Wee Willie Walsh" played to the music BA uses in its commercials.

In the game, the BA chairman has to try to load a single suitcase from a mountain of bags, but he's frustrated at every turn by flying baggage carts. This seems to be one game Willie Walsh can't win.

For NPR News, I'm Vicki Barker in London.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And one more misfortune at Heathrow today. Supermodel Naomi Campbell was escorted off a U.S.-bound flight.

SIEGEL: Police said they arrested a passenger on suspicion of assaulting an officer but provided no further details. You recall Campbell was ordered to spend five days mopping floors last year after throwing a mobile phone at her housekeeper.

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