On Trial at Heathrow

I spent a recent Saturday on trial at Heathrow.  You may, or may not, be relieved to hear that this was not in a courthouse with bewigged legal eagles.  No, it was in the brand new, not yet open to the public, Heathrow Terminal 2.  Along with a few hundred other people I had been invited to help the airport authorities try out the facilities of the new terminal and to provide feedback on the good and the bad bits.

Back in 2008 HAL (Heathrow Airport Limited, the airport operating company) opened a brand new terminal for British Airways flights.  Terminal 5 was a state-of-the-art airport terminal.  However they very quickly discovered, on day one of live operations to be precise, that state-of-the-art is not synonymous with fool-proof.  Virtually everything that could go wrong went wrong.  Chaos reigned.  At least lessons have been learned and planning for the opening of T2 is being undertaken in a seriously meticulous manner.  Saturday’s trial was the last of a whole series involving “real” people.

The new terminal is a not a makeover but a complete replacement for the old and wearyT2.  It lies in the central area of the airport serving mostly foreign, i.e. non-British, airlines with flights to predominantly European and Middle Eastern destinations.  It has always been a bit like a second class citizen as far as terminals go.  I speak with experience having been a regular user from the early seventies until about ten years ago.  Without trying to sound too xenophobic, which as a dedicated traveller I’m certainly not, I have always put the second class status down to the combination of the majority of airlines being “foreign” and the bulk of the passengers being “foreign”.

I was really looking forward to a chance to see inside this brand spanking new temple for travellers.  Getting to the terminal was easy.  A short walk to Richmond Bus Station, an H37 bus to Hounslow, a short walk to the tube station, a Piccadilly Line train directly to the Central Area of the airport and I was there.  Following the signs to “Terminal 2” takes you through an underground passageway.

It gradually dawned on me that the motley crew walking through the tunnel were all heading for the trial.  And what a cross-section of humanity it was.  All ages were represented from babies to senior citizens.  There was a good sprinkling of “passengers” who would need special assistance and a few parties including a pack of about 20 cub scouts.  No one was unrepresented including the compulsive talkers who want to tell you their life-story and those who don’t understand the basics of queueing.  Life’s rich panoply of characters was all there.

From the tunnel we were directed up two sets of escalators into a massive hall that was dominated by a metal sculpture suspended from the ceiling.  Slipstream by Richard Wilson is some 70 metres long and is one of the largest permanent indoor sculptures in the world.  The other feature to grab you, was three very large marquees.  These turned out to be the meet-and-greet facility for us trialees – is that a real word?

The first marquee was for registration.  This was very efficient and we were issued with a number of tokens on a lanyard.  The tokens included a trial id, a lunch ticket and some other bits and pieces.  Then it was into the second marquee which was a holding area for the third marquee where we were given a short presentation on the trial and what we would be asked to do.  We were told that the trial would start with arriving at the airport, going through check-in and security to the main departures lounge where a packed lunch would be served.  Then we would go to the gate and board our flight.  A bit of time travel later and we would “land” and go through the arrivals process.  And just to add to the fun we would each get a new persona and passport along with details of our “flight” and instructions as to what luggage if any we were to be carrying.  Then it was out of the building and into a multi-storey car park.  Here awaited another marquee in which we had to queue for what seemed like an inordinate amount of time.  It turned out that they were trying to simulate the random rate at which travelling passengers would arrive at the terminal.  All very realistic.  Once at the front of this queue, you were directed on what seemed like a random basis to a desk where your personal travel plan was issued.

From now on through departures I was to be known as Michael Smith, a British citizen travelling with Aer Lingus to Cork.  Michael had already checked in on-line so was in possession of a boarding card and the instructions said he had no baggage.  Once outside the last marquee and on the main deck of the car park, there were piles of suitcases of all shapes and sizes waiting for those passengers who needed them.  That wasn’t me so it was straight ahead and into the terminal.

As I had already checked-in it was a matter of heading straight to security.  And here a problem arose.  I could not see any signs showing where to go.  So, as one does, I approached a member of staff who was showing passengers how to use the self-service check-in machines.  Just an aside, it never ceases to amaze me how many staff are needed to help people through self-service areas.  Surely the whole idea is that you should be able to do whatever is needed entirely by yourself.  Speaking as someone who at one time in my career designed self-service systems, I feel partly to blame for the problem though I hope I never got things as wrong as some modern day systems.

The person I spoke to immediately saw my problem – how to get to security – and explained that signage was an issue.  He took me a short distance, pointed round some obstacles to vision, and said “There’s the sign, way over in the distance on the right”.  He was, of course, correct but how a newcomer was expected to see the sign was anyone’s guess.  “Please record this problem on your feedback”, he said.

Security was pretty efficient.  A reader verified that you were carrying a valid boarding pass and a gate opened to lead through to the security scanning area.  As is normal, they asked you to put bags, phones, watches, belts etc, etc, onto plastic trays to go through the scanners.  The bottles of water provided by HAL had to be discarded as per normal and then you walked through a body scanner.  I was lucky and only had to pass through the scanning arch, others were selected to go through the full-body scanner.  Again all very realistic.  Through the other side I picked up my possessions and re-acquainted my belt with my trousers.  Then it was time for feedback.

There were rows and rows of tablets on pods and you were directed to a vacant position.  The screen took you through a number of personal profiling type questions and asked some specific questions about check-in and security.  There was also a space for ad hoc comments which allowed me to record the issue with the signage in the check-in hall.  An escalator then fed us down to the main departures lounge.  My flight was due to leave at 13,25 so a time check was called for.  It was then that I discovered that I’d manage to leave my watch in the security area.  So, back up the escalator, past the feedback terminals and onwards to security.  As I approached a lady official said, as she would, that I couldn’t go back through security.  I explained that I was looking for my watch which had been accidentally left in the plastic tray.  She smiled and looked relieved, called to a colleague and my watch and myself were re-united.  Great service.

The watch told me that time was indeed ticking by and getting to the gate was becoming a priority.  However I couldn’t miss the free lunch.  There was a long queue for lunch boxes and my first thought was that lunch might not be going to happen.  Then with good fortune a man appeared walking down the line handing out boxes.  At first it wasn’t clear what the criteria were for being handed a box, but as he got closer, I realised he was offering tuna sandwiches and wasn’t getting many takers.  Tuna suits me fine, in fact it would probably have been my first choice, so I was in luck.

The main departures lounge is not yet fully operational but it looks like behind the hoardings there will be many shops and eating places.  What was obvious was lots of seating.  I didn’t have time to explore so headed smartly towards the gate for the flight to Cork.  Everything had been planned to be as realistic as possible so the departure screens showed the flights and gate numbers.  The airport authority had given some thought to passenger needs during the trial and had provided lots of additional snacks for the hungry and as many bottles of water as you wanted.  Full marks.

Boarding was announced within a couple of minutes and the assembled throng, looking exactly like any crowd of people waiting to board a flight, pressed forward as always happens at the gate.  At a manned desk our new persona passports were scanned and at a second desk boarding passes were checked.  Once past the second desk, it was through some doors and down a number of flights of stairs towards the plane.  Except that before reaching the plane we experienced a time-warp.  We were told that we now needed new persona and these were handed out in exchange for our old persona.  I was now Peter Blake arriving on a Virgin Express flight from Aberdeen and I had a case to collect identified by a white tag numbered 022.

To add to the realism we were directed out onto the tarmac where three buses awaited.  We were being bussed to the terminal exactly as had happened to me in the real world two days earlier on arriving at Gatwick on a flight from Inverness.  Once on the buses it gradually became clear that there had been a glitch in the planning.  None of the staff seemed to know what was happening.  This was taking realism too far.

After about 15 minutes of going nowhere, it was announced that they would soon be ready to start the next part of the trial.

Domestic arrivals is normally fairly painless but today it literally wasn’t.  A short walk into the terminal led to a pair of luggage carousels, where, as instructed, I collected a luggage trolley.  Neither carousel was working and the indicator boards didn’t show which one would be used for the in-coming Aberdeen flight.   In normal lemming fashion we collectively decided to gather round one specific carousel.  There were no places to sit whilst we waited and a number of people became quite agitated.  Some decided to sit on the carousels which brought out a member of staff who ordered them to get off.  When they asked where they could sit the answer was “nowhere”.  Not good service if this is how it will be after opening.

Eventually the warning klaxon sounded and one of the carousels started to move.  Then luggage started to appear.  Each case had a large plastic label attached and each label had a number.  How long would it be before number 022 appeared.  Just to keep us in the spirit of realism, three or four bags would arrive together then there would be a break.  And often a group of cases would be partly on top of each other so that it was difficult to identify your own bag.  Then I spotted label 022, jammed under another case and partly caught in the belt.  In the split second available to retrieve the case before the belt would move it inexorably onwards, I grabbed the label and felt a sharp pain followed almost immediately by a flow of blood.  I should mention that I take prescribed blood thinning aspirin on a daily basis and that does lead to disproportionate amounts of blood from relatively minor wounds.  I look around for some help but none was to be found.

I heaved the case onto the trolley then put my handkerchief over the cut and headed towards the exit hoping to find some airport staff.  But there were none to be found.  Then I came to a desk manned by trial staff and explained my problem.  Could they find me an elastoplast or bandaid.  One of them went over to a first aid box mounted on the wall, opened it and found it contained a number of bandages but nothing else.  So he then said he would go and find one and disappeared through a door.  A few minutes later he appeared carrying the required item and soon this wounded soldier was ready to re-commence battle.

In fact, this was the end.  For bizarre reasons, especially as it was a warm and sunny day, we were all presented with a gift in the form of a large umbrella.  Does Heathrow Airport know something about the weather forecast?  At this point I was glad to be relieved of my luggage trolley.  It had been but a short, though painful, time together.

One last task remained.  It was time to give more feedback on another set of tablets.  Naturally I wanted to draw the airport’s attention to the poor health and safety standards.  Not only was the luggage tag dangerous due to the hard plastic with sharp edges but also first aid provision was woefully inadequate.  However as I started to go through the questionnaire it became clear that Health & Safety was not under the spotlight today and there was no place to record additional comments.

I asked a member of staff how to report the issue and was directed to a small desk where there were old fashioned paper forms and pens – almost Dickensian in this monument to the future.  Having explained the issue in as much length as the small sheets of paper allowed, it was time to call it a day.

Apart from the time spent simulating random arrival times at the beginning, dead time on the bus and the lengthy wait for baggage at the end, it all went very quickly.  In fact, so quickly that there was little time to look around and try out the facilities of the new terminal.  The impression is of large, airy spaces and, with the exception of the baggage hall, plenty of seating.  The connections between the car park and the terminal were essentially undercover and it was a very short walk from car to the check-in hall.  Coming from the underground was slightly less easy.  Departures is at the top of the building so the passengers have to negotiate a series of escalators that rise up through the building.  That’s fine when you have no baggage but could be quite strenuous for some.  There may be lifts, but if there are, they were kept out of sight for the trial.   My suspicion was that whilst the concept of today was well planned, like ducks in water, there were lots of feet paddling madly away beneath the surface to make it work.

So, as they say, in conclusion, this was a great day for someone like me who is interested in systems and planning.  The overall idea of checking out how the terminal would perform when used by a cross section of the general public was well thought through.   When the terminal opens for business in June there should be no repeat of the T5 fiasco.  I’m looking forward to my first “live” visit to the terminal in September.  Turkish Airlines who we will be flying with to Istanbul, are moving to the new terminal.


I wrote this blog at 38,000 feet over the Atlantic on a flight from Heathrow to Chicago.  As we passed T2 on the way into Heathrow, there was clearly lots of work still to be done on the outside of the terminal.  Scaffolding and builders detritus is everywhere.  And the grand opening is scheduled for early June.  There must be a lot of airport people with their fingers – and their toes – crossed.



About Clashgour

With my wife Margaret I am spending a happy retirement based in Richmond, London. When travelling we use public transport where possible, resorting to a car when it is the only viable option. This blog is an occasional diary of our travels in North America, Europe and Turkey plus other places as yet unknown.
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