LONDON, England (CNN) -- It has taken nearly two decades and $8.6 billion, but London Heathrow's Terminal Five finally opened for business Thursday morning.
A general view of the new Terminal 5 at Heathrow Airport prior to its official opening on Thursday.
When British Airways Flight 26 touched down from Hong Kong at 4:42 a.m. (12:42 a.m. ET), passengers made their way to the 400-meter-long terminal, the largest freestanding building in Britain.
With 60 aircraft stands actually attached to two new buildings, "T5" can handle dozens of planes at the same time -- including the new Airbus A380 superjumbo -- and can process 12,000 bags an hour. All of this is for just one occupant: British Airways.
It's a new era for BA and the 30 million passengers who will pass through T5 each year. Both have suffered for years at the four older terminals of what's been derided as "Hassle Heathrow."
"I've been very critical of the airport," BA Chief Executive Willie Walsh told CNN. "(It's) because of the problems we have faced as a result of poor infrastructure at the airport.
"So we now have the infrastructure. We have a state of the art baggage system; we've got a state of the art terminal building. We've got lounges like you have never seen before and it will be down to us and it will be down to the people at British Airways to make it a success."
Part of this strategy is to get passengers to the airport earlier to avoid delays. Travelers will be encouraged to check in online, and there will only be 54 of the classic check-in desks compared to 96 self-check-in kiosks.
No passengers will be allowed through if they arrive less than 35 minutes before their flight. For those having to wait in the terminal, airport operator BAA built T5 with 112 shops and restaurants, including British chef Gordon Ramsey's first airport eatery.
Critics say T5 is just a massive shopping mall, but the architect says it's a throwback to old-fashioned travel.
"We wanted to make the experience of being in an airport exciting. We wanted to capture the spirit of travel," architect Richard Rogers told CNN. "The greatest stations, whether it is New York or London, the 19th century stations did exactly that."
BA rival Virgin Atlantic calls it a gift for BA. Airport expansion protesters say it's just the latest step in a fierce battle to enlarge the world's busiest international airport.
Heathrow sits to the west of London in a densely populated area. There are already plans for a sixth terminal and a third runway.
Supporters say expansion is vital for London's economy, but environmentalists say expanding London's three main airports -- Heathrow, Gatwick, and Stansted -- will only add to harmful climate change.
More expansion may be years away, but T5 will affect most travelers using Heathrow. Many of the other airlines will be shuffled around the other four terminals over the coming months, and next year Terminal Four is expected to undergo major renovation.
"Hassle Heathrow" may not be an outdated criticism just yet. E-mail to a friend
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