Chaos at Heathrow's New Terminal

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Luke MacGregor / Reuters

The opening of London Heathrow Airport's $8.6 billion Terminal 5 ended in chaos with its baggage handling system suspended and dozens of flights cancelled.

Just over two weeks ago, Queen Elizabeth II officially opened Heathrow Airport's Terminal 5 — a light and airy structure that seems to be made solely of stone, steel and glass. She praised the $9 billion terminal as "a triumph of ambition, commitment and collaboration" and boasted that it would put Heathrow back where it belonged, "at the edge of global travel." Function aside, pamphlets touted the ergonomic design of check-in desks and the choice of sinks in the washroom facilities. Terminal 5 wasn't merely an airport extension, officials wanted the world to believe. It was a monument to modern travel.

It hasn't exactly panned out like that. Thursday's opening was a disaster. British Airways, the sole carrier operating from the terminal, canceled 34 flights, owing to computer glitches, human error and, according to airport officials, "initial teething problems." There were also staff shortages: some employees struggled to get through security checkpoints, while others couldn't find the employee parking lot. Only one of the terminal's eighteen elevators was functioning, and at least one handicapped passenger was left stranded curbside — for an hour.

Terminal 5, which took two decades of planning and construction, boasts 11 miles of baggage conveyors as part of a state-of-the-art system designed to handle up to 12,000 bags an hour. And yet seven flights left on Thursday without luggage. By the early evening the airline had suspended check-in luggage because the terminal's conveyor belt was clogged, and arriving passengers waited up to four hours to reclaim their luggage. Angry scenes reportedly erupted in passport control and baggage claim areas as disgruntled passengers pushed and shoved.

"Yesterday was definitely not British Airways' finest hour," its CEO Willie Walsh said in a statement. "We disappointed many people and I apologize sincerely. I take responsibility for what happened." It's a far cry from the feelings he exuded about the terminal's planned opening in an interview with TIME last year: "Judge me by it ... I'm very confident it will be a fantastic success."

By Friday morning, British newspapers were lambasting the new terminal as a "disgrace," and BA then announced it would be canceling one out of every five flights during the terminal's second day. The airport held overnight meetings (while some passengers were sleeping on the premises) and its attitude toward journalists became decidedly frosty. An army of support staff holding clipboards and wearing blue t-shirts emblazoned with the question "Can I help?" marched around the terminal. Their answers to media queries mirrored official statements and were structured with supporting evidence. As one employee, who asked not to be identified, says, "We opened yesterday, that's all. They're bound to be teething problems." And those problems show no sign of abating: British Airways has confirmed that 66 short-haul flights have been canceled on Saturday, with a further 37 not running on Sunday.

Chris Short, a conference organizer, waited an hour and a half for his clients to retrieve their luggage and says that expectations for the terminal have exceeded what it's capable of. Still, he feels the British media have purposely put it on a pedestal, purely to bring it down. "In America they'd say, 'This is great. We're going to make it work.' But here we say, 'It's great, but that door could be a little bit closer there,'" he says. "It's a British disease to knock things."

Of course, that habit may be more international than he thinks. Mariam Salehe, a college student from Frankfurt, Germany, arrived at Terminal 5 at noon only to learn her flight home would leave at seven. Bathed in light filtering from the glass ceiling panels and standing near a sleekly designed check-in desk, she took little comfort in her surroundings. "It doesn't matter that it's beautiful," she says. "I just want to fly."