Mark Davison comments from San Francisco – Heathrow's latest, greatest, state-of-the-art Terminal Five fully lived up to its unenviable reputation of being the most dreaded destination on earth as South African delegates made their way via the "terminal" terminal to this year's HP Preferred Partner Conference in San Francisco.
The first sign that some of us were about to get the Full Monty of T5's somewhat unique treatment was when dishevelled passengers started to sit down once again – lo-o-o-ng minutes after we had reached our docking point. Turned out, an exasperated captain informed us, that there was a technical fault with the automated gangway and that groundstaff were now looking for a set of steps.
"Just bring a bloody stepladder," muttered one homebound English passenger after 30 minutes.
After 45 minutes, an even more irate skipper came back on the tannoy to again apologise for "the shambles", adding that steps had been located and were at last being manouvered into their proper position.
Finally making our way to the transit area via a multitude of impressively long and high escalators, and a similarly impressive tube service, the smokers among us suddenly realised we had taken the wrong option by going directly to the transit lounge. There is not a smoking area in sight (or smell) and, once you're in T5, there's no way of getting out to the sidewalks for a hasty, desperately-needed nicotine fix.
Having just spent the better part of 13 hours fidgeting on board a smoke-free Jumbo and with the prospect of another 12 hours on the final leg of the journey, I approached a security officer to enquire how I could get outside, or where I could go, to indulge in one of the last remaining pleasures I have – a few puffs on a perfectly legal cigarette.
She was polite, but firm, probably fed up already by the hundreds if not thousands of similar requests I'm sure she's had in the three weeks T5 has been opened. If I'd had more of a layover before my connecting flight, she said, she might – just might – have been able to organise an escort to take me outside. But, seeing I had just less than two hours, there was no way she could risk it. I had even less luck with the staff at one of the coffee shops in the area the majority of whom, it seems, are from Eastern Europe.
Needless to say, I made it through the rest of the trip, but made a nasty dent in my customary placebo supply of sucking sweets.
Anyone who has been through a US airport will tell you how intimidating the customs and passport officials can be, but nothing was further from my mind than my first cigarette for more than a day as we dutifully lined up behind the yellow lines before being digitally fingerprinted, retina scanned, and passport stamped and stapled.
So, imagine my dismay – and the mirth of my fellow South African travellers – when, mid-queue, there was a power cut and the PCs and biometrics at every one of the 46 MANNED (ACSA please take note – that's 46 occupied and working stations) clearance stations bombed. As you can imagine, the South Africans had quite a lot to say about this, but a more interesting observation was that, even in America, there didn't seem to be any form of manual system in place to back-up the failed computers. Interesting.
Having said that, the systems were up and running within minutes and it didn't take long for the 46 officials to clear the passengers from the one and only flight at that time.
As I headed to the baggage carousel I could almost taste the smoke catching the back of my throat as our delay meant there weren't that many bags doing the rounds. Unfortunately, my old black-and-red Targus – which has literally circumnavigated the globe three or four times – wasn't one of them. I grimly remembered reading in the in-flight magazine that "400 000 manhours had gone into the development of the software for the baggage system at T5". I couldn't help wondering which of the developers decided to take a one-hour powernap to ensure that my bag wasn't scanned at T5?
So, as my fellow SA travellers gathered their suitcases and made their way outside to the waiting bus, I queued at baggage enquiries with one other South African and a number of Indians in from Mumbai – funnily enough, via T5.The BA staff on the counter were courteous and efficient – they've obviously had lots of practice over the past few weeks – and reference numbers, phone numbers and $50 credit cards which can be cashed at ATMs for "essentials" were rapidly disbursed.
What someone should tell them, though, is that US ATMs only dispense cash in $20 denominations, so there must be a truckload of $10 BA credit cards somewhere in the market. Maybe they should try and save on all those $10 amounts and use the money for something useful – like fixing T5.
It's notoriety, like a bad smell, has spread rapidly.
As I bought a belt at Macy's here in San Francisco, I asked the teller if I could put it on straight away before my one-and-only pair of jeans descended round my ankles. I told him I was the victim of lost luggage.
"Oh," he asked, "where did you lose it?"
"I'll honestly give you one guess," I replied.
"Oh no! Don't tell me Terminal 5?" he burped with laughter. "I swear you're about the fourth person this week I've served who's lost their luggage there."
See what I mean?