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Can T5's design conquer delays?

  • Story Highlights
  • Architects behind T5 are "bringing back a generosity of light, space and air"
  • The $8.6 billion terminal is 400 meters long, 170 meters deep and 37 meters high
  • With no internal columns the terminal can be adapted to meet changing needs
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By Emma Clarke
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LONDON, England (CNN) -- Its opening may have been an unmitigated disaster of canceled flights, lost baggage and painful delays, but the architects behind Heathrow Terminal 5 say they hope their $8.6 billion colossus will eventually bring a different kind of drama to the traveling experience.

T5's architects say their building has a "generosity of light, space and air."

Their aim, they say, is to create a departure from the usual story of passengers shuffling down interminable corridors of dull light into windowless caverns of lines and disorder,

Says Mike Davies, from Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners, the lead architect for T5, says: "we have tried to create a high quality of passenger experience by bringing back a generosity of light, space and air."

These may not have been the impressions of the terminal's first customers, many of whom spent the night sleeping on the building's floor as technical problems left them stranded.

But the architects insist, when it overcomes its teething problems, Terminal 5 should make flying a much more pleasant experience.

The journey from Paddington rail station in the center of London to check-in should take only 20 minutes. And passengers arriving by bus or taxi pull up in a separate building, cross flying bridges over a piazza of trees and benches and arrive into the towering space of the terminal.

As Davies says, this is a dramatic entry into what is clearly a very, very large space. The terminal is almost 400 meters long and 170 meters deep. But unlike Stansted airport -- another London airport of a similar depth -- there are no internal columns. Ten percent of the roof and every wall let natural light pour in. "We worked hard to make it feel as light filled as possible," says Davies.

British Airways, the sole occupant of Heathrow Terminal Five, has installed 96 check-in kiosks, the majority self-service to reduce lines. The baggage system -- which broke down on the opening day -- is "state of the art," says BA.

Once through security, there's more drama as passengers emerge onto a high-level balcony. Look behind and you'll see Windsor Castle and in front there are floor-to-ceiling views over the runways. As Davies says, "you don't emerge into a corridor looking for signs. Instead you can see your plane and intuitively understand how the whole system operates."

There's also a good view of the shops and restaurants. The retail focus here is high-end -- with the likes of Paul Smith and Harrods as well as the standard array of high street names.

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Dining is also at the fine end. British celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay has a restaurant, Plane Food, with its own cocktail bar and views across the runway.

The space uses a "common lounge" concept which means passengers can walk from shop to shop, gate to gate across one giant space.

From its new terminal, BA offers the largest lounge complex in the world with six lounge options as well as a spa. Once again, the key feature here is space and spectacular views across the building and runways.

Another unexpected feature is a series of art installations. In departures, a towering sculpture of neon lights in Chinese characters has been commissioned to coincide with an exhibition of Chinese design at London's V&A museum. And outside, two pieces by artists Langlands & Bell bookend the pedestrian plaza.

For Davies, T5 is not just a "cathedral-like space"; it is also a "piece of a city under one great roof". And being vertically, not horizontally spread as most other airports, it is also a "skyscraper" of a terminal. But Davies' final analogy is a "giant market hall" that, with no internal columns, can be adapted to meet the airport's changing needs.

Whether there are changes to security procedures or immigration, or to the airline's products and facilities, "the one thing we can be sure of is that, in 10 years' time, it will not be the same", says Davies

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And even though Terminal 5 doesn't bring extra runway capacity to Heathrow, it is -- eventually -- expected to relieve some of the congestion and hassle that the airport has become renowned for.

"For the longer-term growth of Heathrow, this provides the shuffle space for them to start improving the rest of the airport," says Davies. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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