Riding down the escalator into London Heathrow Terminal 5’s main waiting and shopping hall, I heard a man behind me quip to his companion, “Can you believe this is the new terminal?”
I turned around and said, “This terminal is new?” We shared a chuckle.
Nothing about the space we inhabited felt as recent as it apparently was. It felt instead scattershot, like a space that was built for one purpose but re-appropriated for something else. Seating appeared crammed, shops and eating establishments seemed carved out of space that was meant to be open. The sensation, almost certainly, was heightened by the strange, fusty journey that took me from my landing gate to this escalator in the first place.
An hour earlier, I’d landed at Heathrow on a British Airways flight from New York with a five-and-a-half-hour layover looming in front of me. I stared up at a Departures screen, located nothing useful, walked further down the long shiny hallway, gazed up at another Departures screen, and then gave up on that particular tack. I made the hazy decision to find someone from whom to ask advice about the next leg of my journey, a flight to Amman, Jordan. That someone turned out to be the guy sitting at the first line of defense at security, which—and this is central to one’s understanding of Heathrow—must be traversed repeatedly and in the face of measures you don’t encounter in airports elsewhere. You will be asked to give up the bottle of water you bought for $4 at the airport. You will be provided a laughably small clear plastic baggie into which all liquids are expected to fit—and you do have to remove them from your toiletry kit.
Of course, the man informed me, I wouldn’t be going through this particular security at this particular time. I was a long way from where I was supposed to be, in fact. At Heathrow’s Terminal 5, which serves British Airways almost exclusively, save for a few Iberia flights, gates are not posted until an hour or so before their scheduled departures. Passengers can’t enter the gate areas B and C, from which most flights depart, until their gate is announced. Layover victims are thus herded into area A and its central waiting area, at which point they are required to go through security all over again, and then yet again when they finally head to B or C. This is insane.
I took a train to area A, where I learned that in this particular security situation, my toiletries didn’t stand a chance. A security guard here recommended that I check my suitcase or risk having many items confiscated. This elicited flashbacks to an earlier era in my life when, flying back and forth between New York and London in service of a doomed relationship, my makeup once got “lost” on its way through the X-ray machine at this very airport, and the guy manning it on the other side dismissed me in a way that convinced me he was involved in its disappearance.
The guard pointed me to a line to check my bag and I inched forward in it for half an hour until, sidling up to a window, I was told I was in the wrong line. The BA rep told me that probably the guard had wanted me to “check on” my bag, not check it in. Holding onto my tempter for dear life, I managed to convince her otherwise, and after telling me she didn’t have the capability to check my bag at this counter, she checked my bag at this counter. In, not on.
I thus got through a security point successfully, and an hour after landing, made it to area A. I immediately asked an airport employee if there were any USB ports to be found; she didn’t know what a USB port is. “Can I charge my phone anywhere?” I said, recalibrating the question. She lit up with understanding and sent me down that escalator into the main hall of a terminal that is new but seems old.
Terminal 5 opened in 2008, and in parts at least, it’s an impressive feat. Entering the check-in hall is apparently an architectural revelation–I wouldn’t know first-hand, of course, having checked in for this flight at JFK. And the sheer immensity of it is truly impressive. As an engineering feat, the single-span roof (which means no interior columns) on a building 1,300 feet in length is one of those things that should be impossible.
Why then, did I and the guys riding the escalator behind me experience it as so outdated? Perhaps because a section was closed off for renovations, for starters. Perhaps because all passengers waiting for a flight here have to hang out in this single area, rendering it invariably packed, which gives the impression of its being constructed in a time with fewer airline passengers to accommodate. In reality, Terminal 5 was designed to accommodate 35 million flyers per year. In 2015 it handled 33.1 million, so it’s pretty much at capacity, and it shows. The building has an enormous footprint, yet the crowds and the setup make it feel too small.
But it wasn’t all bad. Upstairs from the main waiting area, I ate in a charming escape of a restaurant called Huxley’s, which served solid lattes and a vegetarian English breakfast that saved me from myself, even as a couple rowdy groups of English lads downed pints nearby. It was worth the price of my meal to get away from that depressing waiting hall for awhile.
The bathrooms in area A were great, and inexplicably mostly empty, considering the crowds milling around outside of them. Still, I can’t understand why the bathrooms in a place catering to layovers wouldn’t have more of a “freshening up” space. Also, near the bathrooms or elsewhere there were no water fountains to be found, a cruel oversight considering you can’t take bottles of water through the myriad security lines.
Back downstairs near the main waiting area, there’s a lot of shopping to be done. Out of sheer boredom, I ended up at the Kiehl’s counter, where I discovered a new travel favorite in the brand’s “First Class” Purifying Hand Treatment—it’s a hand sanitizer/moisturizer combo and it smells seriously divine. In another shop I almost bought a pair of shoes, and likely would have had I still had a suitcase with me to put them in. Despite the decent retail finds, though, it seemed obvious that fewer stores and more seating would make Terminal 5 a far more pleasant space for those it’s meant to serve.
Finally, ultimately, and just when I’d almost forgotten why I had submitted to this purgatory, my gate showed up on the Departures board. I could see the screen from my seat. I read it and then looked behind me. I was sitting 20 feet from my gate, mercifully located in area A. Just a few steps away, and no security line. I could have cried.