A Crash Landing

Heathrow is hard to avoid. The world's busiest international airport is also its most crowded. Every year some 67 million passengers—up to 200,000 a day—pass through the airport's four terminals, which were designed for 45 million people. The airport operates at 99 percent capacity, and with only two runways, 65 percent of its flights are more than 15 minutes late. According to a report last year, Heathrow's major carrier, British Airways, ranked 24 out of 25 European airlines for its record on lost baggage. Some 2 million business-class and first-class passengers have abandoned Heathrow since 2006. A survey of leading figures in the aviation business last year rated Heathrow as the worst of the world's leading airports.

But all that was supposed to change last week when Heathrow's grand Terminal 5, dedicated to British Airways flights, opened to its first passengers. The biggest freestanding building in Britain, it was designed to end the interminable queues for security and check-in, and whisk passengers through the formalities in a promised 10 minutes. State-of-the-art security systems would make it convenient and safe. Underground baggage conveyors would ease the conveyor congestion for which the airport is justly infamous.

Instead, just about everything that could go wrong, did—short of an airplane crash. Passengers were stuck for up to 20 minutes in elevators, which often stopped working altogether. By day two, only one out of a bank of 15 elevators worked, leaving airport workers to carry wheelchair-bound customers up stairs. The monorails meant to zip passengers to satellite boarding areas failed completely. Only 20 percent of scheduled flights were flying. On incoming flights, luggage disappeared without a trace. "Heathrow has been an international disgrace for years, and this was meant to be a new beginning," said British interior designer Howard Pike, who arrived from Oslo the first night and was still looking for his bags the next day. "I've always avoided Heathrow, and now I'm going to avoid it even more."

BA did its best at damage control. Workers donned yellow T shirts reading CAN I HELP? and fanned out through the legions of stranded and delayed travelers. But in the words of David Wilshire, a Conservative M.P. whose constituency includes Heathrow, "It couldn't have been worse." In a way, BA and the British Airports Authority were victims of their own public relations. The opening followed a lengthy campaign that culminated in a ceremonial opening by the queen two weeks ago, which went off without a hitch. Expectations were high that a terminal building big enough to handle 30 million passengers a year on its own would soon bring an end to the human traffic jams and other indignities suffered by travelers to London. The airline and the airport operator—which also runs London's Gatwick and Stansted airports—suggested the other was to blame, Wilshire says. But the real problem is that it was the biggest airport restructuring "anywhere on the planet."

The opening of Terminal 5 may be just the beginning of Heathrow's travails. The transfer of flights to T5 was planned for two stages, with the second due in mid-May. Then, BAA plans to build a new megaterminal to replace the outmoded Terminals 1 and 2—which go back as far as 1955—it hopes in time for the London Olympics in 2012. Even then, Heathrow officials must contend with a bigger problem: its runways. The government wants to see construction of a third runway that would raise capacity from 480,000 to 702,000 flights a year. A decision is expected this summer, but even in a best-case scenario it is unlikely a third runway could be built before 2012. With only two runways, no amount of terminal expansion will solve the problem of delayed landings and takeoffs. "The infrastructure at Heathrow just hasn't kept pace with demand," says Peter Morris of the aviation consultancy Ascend.

Bad news for Heathrow is good news for its competitors. Rivals across the continent, like Frankfurt, Amsterdam and Paris, are yearning to bag any traffic London can't handle. Many alternative hubs serve more international destinations than Heathrow, and are better placed to handle extra traffic. Schiphol in Amsterdam already has five commercial runways, Paris's Charles de Gaulle has four, and Frankfurt has won approval to build a fourth. None is operating at more than 75 percent capacity. "The trouble is that Heathrow is in decline relative to other hub airports," says Clive Soley of Future Heathrow, a lobbying group pressing for the construction of a third runway. "In 1990 it served 227 destinations; that's now down to 180. If that decline continues, you have to ask yourself at what point it is no longer Europe's premier hub airport. Milan, Rome and Munich will overtake us soon. Without it [a third runway] we are going to be marginalized in Europe and in the global economy. London is a great city and great financial center with a truly crappy transport system."

It can only get worse. Beginning April 1, U.S. and European carriers will enjoy much wider rights to fly into different country's airports, thanks to the "open skies" deal between Brussels and Washington. But it is unclear why any airlines would choose London when others have more space to offer. Lobbyists now argue London's status as a global capital would be endangered unless expansion gets the go-ahead. But any proposal to expand must contend with fierce opposition from environmentalists. In February, activists climbed to the roof of the House of Commons to protest the third runway and the likely increase in pollution, noise and road congestion. Others have protested at the airport and threatened to block construction workers.

For aviation policy watchers, these issues have a weary familiarity. Governments have talked of expanding London's airport capacity since the 1960s, including ambitious proposals for an entirely new site on the Thames estuary east of London. Almost every scheme has been junked on the grounds of economy or because of local opposition. The original plans for Terminal 5 were drawn up in the late 1980s, and its opening was at least six years late. Whatever happens now won't bring relief to Heathrow's hapless visitors any time soon.