Terminal 5 six months on

Heathrow's new terminal seems to be back on track after its disastrous launch in March. Alex Blyth asks six experts whether its reputation is salvageable

Heathrow: Terminal 5
Heathrow: Terminal 5

Billboards around the country declare: ‘Terminal 5 is working.’ And it would seem the British Airways terminal at Heathrow has indeed finally got its act together. More than seven million people have now used it and a survey by BA in August of more than 2,000 visitors revealed 82 per cent rated T5’s lounges ‘very highly’.

BA now claims the average plane-to-carousel transfer for luggage only takes 24 minutes, and this month it opened a business class check-in area and a first class lounge containing an Elemis travel spa and wine gallery.

This is a far cry from March, when the chaos surrounding the terminal’s launch left BA executives wondering if their new home would ever be working at all.

On opening day, the baggage handling system failed to work properly, leading to the cancellation of dozens of flights, passengers stranded overnight, and 15,000 misplaced bags.

It was a far from auspicious start for a terminal that cost £4.3bn, and in August Virgin Atlantic twisted the knife, by announcing rising profits and attributing a surge in business class sales to the problems with T5.

But BA has succeeded in putting the debacle behind it. With a properly functioning terminal, and customers returning, the time has come for BA, the airline industry and the PR industry to look at what went wrong, and what lessons can be learned. PRWeek asked six experts, including a senior spokesman from BA, to reflect on T5’s first six months.

 

travel editor

Lisa Minot
Travel editor of The Sun

‘My view of Terminal 5 was coloured for quite a few weeks by the fact I was left at Charles de Gaulle Airport for more than seven hours as the chaos unfolded on the first day – landing back in the UK at 2am to a sea of abandoned suitcases on the tarmac.

‘It soon became clear that no matter how shiny and high-tech the building, it was still reliant on those old-fashioned workers to run it, and most, it seemed, had not a clue what they were up to for the first few weeks. But six months on, it is working far better. Yes, there are a few niggles but on the whole, using it is a joy compared with some other terminals.

‘I remain to be convinced that we really need so many high-end shops and why isn’t there a lounge for the great unwashed not lucky enough to be travelling in business and first class? Still, I’d rather have Ramsay and Dior than the grim seven hours I spent in

travel pr expert

Jonathan Sloan
MD of travel PR firm Hills Balfour Synergy

‘The first 24 to 48 hours of problems at Terminal 5 will haunt both BAA and BA for many years to come.

‘The UK media are the some of the most brutal in the world and when they sensed that panic had set in, they pounced.

‘Both organisations will have had solid crisis plans in place, but they simply didn’t expect, or plan for, the operational and media meltdown that occurred.

‘The rebuilding exercise has been a long haul, and, coupled with the expensive and extensive advertising campaign, it seems that the negative press has just about stopped.

‘The lesson for us to learn is that whatever plans you have in place, in PR you simply don’t know what is around the corner.’

business travel writer

Adam Coulter
Editor of Travel Trade Gazette Business

‘As a passenger, I’ve enjoyed my experience of T5. I went there a few weeks after it opened and was so impressed I wrote a blog entry about how pleasant it was. I’ve been there a couple of times since and overall I have to say it’s great. There’s a real feeling of space and light and it is very quick to pass through.’

‘The travel industry in general is now very positive about the terminal. However, the PR team got it wrong by talking it up too much in advance of the launch. There was almost an inevitable sense of hubris when it went wrong .

‘I think the problem is that BA is such a large organisation that the left hand often doesn’t know what the right hand is doing. If the PR team had been working more closely with the rest of the organisation it might have avoided some of the negative press.’

crisis pr expert

Alex Woolfall
Head of issues and crisis management, Bell Pottinger Group

‘BA has its work cut out turning its image around after such a disastrous start.

‘However, the company is taking the right approach by focusing its communications programme on the fact that the terminal is now working and passengers’ experiences, on the whole, are now positive.

‘What matters now is passengers’ personal experience of T5. It might be a beautiful building, and the shopping is first class – these are all positive things that can be thrown into the mix.

‘But unless flights get away on time, luggage is delivered promptly and queues are minimised, negative perceptions will remain. Once these things were fixed, the PR team moved quickly into rebuilding mode.’

corporate pr expert

Jane Boardman
CEO of Talk PR

‘In my experience most people are still fairly sceptical about T5. When they have had a good experience they tend to ascribe it to getting lucky, or being there on a good day. For me, although the opening day problems are a factor, a longer-term problem is the fact that the terminal is more like a shopping mall than an airport.

‘Even a lover of shopping and an out-and-out consumerist like me is pretty shocked at the huge scale of shopping excess that makes up the vast majority of one’s exposure to the terminal. And
there seem to be miles to walk past so many shops just to get to a gate, pretty much regardless of
which gate that is.

‘That said, I did love the terminal as a building, and regardless of the endless shops, the experience is one of the easiest and quickest I’ve ever had atan airport.’

British Airways’ response

Paul Marston
Head of media relations,
British Airways

‘On Terminal 5’s opening day, a media stereotype was born: T5 was an embarrassment. We knew this was not true.

‘As week after week of successful operation went by, our customers told us in their tens of thousands how much they loved the building.

‘You cannot eradicate a media stereotype overnight, so we did not try. T5’s quality could speak for itself.
‘Journalists are air travellers too. They might not write about their experiences, but they would tell colleagues. Courageous pioneers went into print to praise. The ad campaign provided a news focus for reporters to confess that, yes, T5 was working.

‘Six months after opening day, T5’s media reputation is on the up – due not to flashy PR, but the experience of nine million satisfied customers.’

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