Terminal 5: the expert view

Heathrow's Terminal 5 is the first UK airport building to be designed around the technology that runs it.

Heathrow's Terminal 5 is the first UK airport building to be designed around the technology that runs it.

The difference, according to the owner, BAA, is space - where technology in other terminals has been crammed into old buildings, Terminal Five provides the space for the technology to work properly. None of the technology is new, but the way it is being implemented is unique, according to BA's CIO, Paul Coby.

BAA and British Airways worked together on T5. The baggage system was designed by BAA, Vanderlande and IBM. A 2D barcode is attached to each bag with information on where it needs to go, and handlers use hand-held scanners to update the bag's position on the system and to work out which route it should take. BAA decided against RFID, which uses radio signals to track bags, because, IT director Richard Rundle said, the value of RFID would only become apparent once airports all over the world use it.

Terminal 5 experienced teething problems when it opened on March 27th 2008. Baggage handlers had problems logging into the system, causing delays in its operation. Passengers were left waiting for over an hour for their bags, and 20% of services had to be cancelled after seven flights took off without any luggage.

Controversy had already been stirred up the day before opening, when comments from the Information Commissioner's Office (ICO) forced BAA to pull its biometric fingerprinting system. The ICO had concerns regarding data protection - the system required domestic passengers to provide a fingerprint at the security gate, which was verified at the departure gate. This meant that international passengers who mingle with domestic passengers in the departures lounge would not be able to swap their boarding card for a domestic one and enter the UK elsewhere without going through immigration. The system was designed to tackle terrorism and illegal immigration, but the ICO said a photographic system would be sufficient.

Technology has also been employed to increase the speed of processes throughout T5. There are 96 self-service check-in kiosks, which are designed to reduce queues. British Airways has provided flight dispatchers with a system called Trip, enabling dispatchers to send vital information about a departing flight while still on the airfield. They use a digital pen to write on plastic paper with embedded IT that recognises the pen. The pen records what is written, and transmits the information to a mobile phone. This is sent via the Vodaphone network to a third-party application running on a BA server, which inputs the information into the Central Load Control centre. The forms showing the flight's status are then available, via a web browser interface, on BA PCs. The system is quicker because dispatchers do not have to return to the office to fill in these forms.

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