Cancelled Flights and Baggage Chaos Sour Heathrow's Terminal 5 Opening

Opening day at Heathrow Airport's grand new Terminal 5 turned sour as severe baggage handling delays led to numerous flight cancellations, stranding many irate passengers. Day 2 brought more of the same.

Early cancellations Friday at the gleaming new terminal included British Airways flights to Edinburgh, Glasgow and Aberdeen.

"It is diabolical," said Tony Pascoe, who had hoped to accompany his mother to Vienna Friday on her first-ever flight. They couldn't get on their plane.

"I am a frequent traveler and this is the worst experience ever — it is absolutely shocking," said Pascoe, 35.

Thursday was supposed to be a day of glory for British Airways, sole occupant of the mammoth new terminal, but it turned into a shambles Thursday as problems worsened. The airline was finally forced to restrict passengers at the terminal to hand luggage only.

Problems developed in the first hours of the terminal's operation — when many passengers had to wait more than an hour to receive their bags — and deepened in the afternoon, when many flights were canceled.

At one point, a British Airways flight left for Paris without any of its checked baggage in the hold, embarrassed airline officials conceded, making a mockery of the earlier claim that the new state-of-the-art baggage system would work well from day one.

"I'm not a happy bunny," Sarah Lowdon, whose flight to Newcastle was canceled Thursday afternoon after she arrived at the new terminal. "They said they'd refund my money, but the time I've lost is mine."

She said she started her journey with high hopes because of all the hype about the gleaming, 4.3 billion pound (US$8.6 billion, euro5.5 billion) terminal — the centerpiece of a plan to revive Heathrow Airport's flagging reputation.

Other disgruntled passengers tried in vain to check in for flights.

"The terminal looks nice, but it would be better if it worked," Vincent Groccia said as he waited to see if his flight for Paris would depart late or be canceled. "I tried to check my bags, but they told me the conveyor system is not working."

There were other, lesser problems: a few broken escalators, some hand dryers that didn't work, a nonfunctioning gate at the new Underground station, and inexperienced ticket sellers who did not know the fares between Heathrow and various stations on the Piccadilly line into central London.

The airline apologized and restricted some passengers to hand luggage only.

"We always knew the first day would represent a unique challenge because of the size and complexity of the move into Terminal 5," British Airways' Director of Operations Gareth Kirkwood said. "We are working extremely hard on solutions to these short-term difficulties."

The delays ruined what had been promoted as a milestone day in British aviation.

It took 19 years for the new terminal to move from concept to reality.

Despite the troubles, in some ways it was a successful first day of operations for the terminal. The highly automated check-in system seemed to work fairly well in reducing lines at check-in facilities and security checkpoints. The terminal, built to handle 30 million passengers per year, seemed remarkably quiet and calm once it started normal operations.

And there was no fast food, but instead a wide variety of pricey gourmet dishes. The public seating areas are comfortable and clean, and even the lavatories are stylish — with soft lighting, dark floors and modern equipment.

Trash cans were the only things missing. They are banned for security reasons, as in most British transport facilities.