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Munich via Heathrow Terminal 5

Dancing, colourful fountains greet you at Heathrow Terminal 5

Dancing, colourful fountains greet you at Heathrow Terminal 5

I had to travel to my company’s headquarters in Munich, Germany this past Thursday and Friday.  I get over there a fair amount, but this was the first time that I had travelled through the infamous Heathrow terminal 5. The horror stories of its opening days earlier this year have now subsided in the media.  But that doesn’t mean there aren’t things to complain about!

Yes, its impressive; however so are the new airports in Seoul, Toronto, and Hong Kong ~ all of which I’ve seen over the past few years.  In fact, I wouldn’t rate it higher than any of them.  And Toronto gets bonus marks for having some damn cool art all over the place!

The niggles?  Well, let’s begin at the beginning…

You arrive off the M25 by a brand new exit that looks like a motorway off ramp except you must crawl along at a ridiculous 40mph. I can only think the limit is so low because the architects want you to appreciate their hard work at making the glass monolith that is T5.

Giraffes serve up tasty food at T5.

Giraffes serve up tasty food at T5.

I was heading to the short term parking.  Okay, a sign here, and there pointed me up a ramp:  I had to drive all the way up the height of the terminal to enter the car park! And then what?  You have to go down again, but around, and around and around on a spiral road.  This, I think, the architects did just so that you would appreciate the long straight bits in their big monolith.  Either that, or they get a cut from insurance company payouts for scratches on cars that don’t quite turn tight enough.

Okay, parked the car.  Off to the lifts.  There was no way of knowing beforehand if any level would let you walk straight into the terminal.  There isn’t.  The architects force you to travel in their big glass lifts in order to marvel at their big monolith.  Okay, fine.  But at least put a sign inside the lift to say what floor to go to for departures!  The only sign I saw was one OUTSIDE the lift before getting in.  Brilliant.  More time to marvel at that building.

The lift’s doors opened. I headed across a short bridge and into the monolith.  Wow, what a high ceiling.  But what is all that noise?  Ah, the giant TVs.  Its not that they have audio blasting, no, its that they have 40 foot fans blowing to keep the darned things cool.  Or perhaps its all part of the building’s cooling system.  I don’t know, but boy are those things noisy, especially near the security areas (hmmm, do I hear health and safety officiers coming?).

The world of T5 shopping overlooks the departure gates.

The world of T5 shopping overlooks the departure gates.

I had already checked in online, so I just had to get through security — there’s a north and a south, but no central, entrance.  And where do you come into the building? In the middle of course!

The security area has a fancy automated bucket machine in which you are supposed to plunk your carry-on items.  Seems good except that it doesn’t really speed anything up.  In fact, it makes people nervous: at the other end of the xray machine the buckets stop under an arch until you empty them, but many people think the bucket will automatically whisk itself under the flap so it can return to take the next passenger’s belongings through.

The result? People lift up the trays, ignoring the signs saying not to lift the trays (hint: if you need a sign then the design is flawed!). This isn’t too bad, except the security guy barks at you to say not to lift up the trays.  Sorry, but the system scares you to think that your laptop is about to disappear into some unknown void, never to be seen again.

Its a crafty technology (there is a camera in the arch that looks to see if there is anything in the bucket before letting it be whisked away) but it is let down by that craftiness.  I wonder how much that system cost compared to having a person return the trays.  Oh wait, health and safety! Empty buckets might be too heavy for people to carry!

After security, I entered the world of shopping.  Where are the gates?  Not here.  I had to pass by at least half the stores before finding the escalator that took me down a floor to the gates.  But before doing that, I stopped at a giraffe (no kidding) to have a quick snack.  It was nice, I have to say, to sit at the table in the restaurant and look out of the wall of glass at the planes outside.

The last niggle upon departure?  No newspapers to read in the waiting area.  There are in the Lufthansa gates over in Terminal 2.  But that whole thing is about to be knocked down.

Is it art or are they taking the piss?

Is it art or are people of Munich taking the piss?

Wait!  I have another niggle: the ceiling above the gates at the ends of the terminal, and in the various corridors.  In fact, its no ceiling.  The award winning architects were obviously inspired by the 1970s.  If you look up, then you will see lots and lots of polka dots.  And between these white discs is…nothing.  You can see right through to the metal cable trays and air ducts.  Maybe they expect many engineers to pass through this terminal.  That, or many baby-boomer hippies.  Now, if they had only had newspapers at the departure gates…

Okay, off I go to Munich.  Whoosh!  It was a typical business trip, except when it wasn’t.  I did find one worker that had a funky chair. And another who likes certain clubs (tip: Montreal has the best ones). Oh yes, and some Munich restaurants have funny looking urinals.

Arriving at T5...but where is the jetty for my plane?

Arriving at T5…but where is the jetty for my plane?

The BA flight coming back to London landed a full twenty minutes before schedule.  Fantastic! Except…

We couldn’t get off the plane.

The jetty wouldn’t budge from T5 to the plane’s door.  The pilot told us of the situation, and reminded us all that we were 20 minutes early.  After 8 more minutes, but still 12 minutes early, he came on to say they were now positioning steps in front of the door.  We could finally disembark (and at our scheduled arrival time).   But, the fun wasn’t over yet.

We were treated to a tour of the north and west sides of T5 courtesy of the bus that we were forced to get on at the bottom of the stairs.  But I get a head of myself.

Let's see, I had to go upstairs for immigration, that means I need to go downstairs to pick up bags.

Leaving immigration upstairs, its time to go downstairs for…

The door into T5 was directly in front of the plane, across a two-laned “street” that the baggage trolleys use.  It seems the BAA management, who run Heathrow, in their wisdom, or fear of the health and safety police, require a bus to move people 50 feet.  But, the bus isn’t allowed to cross the street.  No, it had to turn left on the street, travel along one side of T5, hang a right and go down the west side, then do a U-turn using the roundabout put there at the end of the street just for this purpose, before doubling-back on itself to the door in front of the plane.

We were all relieved (ha!) to see that there were esculators to take us up to immigration and more esculators to take us down to the baggage hall and then into the arrivals hall.  Brilliant design.  The architect must have won an award for most convoluted routing of passengers just arriving at an airport.  Perhaps they are the ones who designed Terminal 2.  Have I mentioned that they are about to knock T2 down?

...and downstairs for baggage claim. Up, down, up, down...

…baggage claim. Up, down, up, down. And what is with that ceiling?

Okay, all must be fine now?  No! Where the hell is the car park office?  I had to go there to get my car park ticket validated because I had pre-paid for parking to save a bunch of cash.  A sign would help.  No sign.  Ask someone in a bright yellow jacket.  They point me to another person in a bright yellow jacket.  He directs me down the road, across the crosswalk and to the tiny office under the car park. Fine.  Ticket ready.  Now, where did I park? Oh yes, upstairs.  Find the lift.  Ohhhh! What pretty fountains.  They were so fascinating that I forgot to look at the architect’s building. Up I go. I found my car right where I left it.  Unfortunately, no one washed it while I was gone.

I’m on the way home at last.  Wait!  Which way do I turn?  As a final insult to arriving passengers, the architects and BAA, decided that drivers, like me, leaving the car park need to be spun around by descending a long spiral road to get to ground level.

The dancing fountains bid me a fond farewell from T5

The dancing fountains bid me a fond farewell from T5

Once at ground level, I was left to my own devices to figure out which way takes me to the M25.  Now, I must say, they did put up a sign.  A tiny sign.  A tiny sign right beside the Y-junction.

Luckily, I kept my wits about me and thought: “If I was a daft BAA management fool with a smarty pants architect and I had to design a road layout, then where would I least likely think to turn?”.

I turned as they didn’t expect, went up a ramp (what is with all this up and down ramp business?) and found myself at a roundabout I recognized.

Free at last!  The clogged M25 was mine to enjoy!

Would I travel BA through T5 again? You bet.  That giraffe serves great nosh.

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