Paris escalates BAA's terminal troubles

'Tis the season to be planning trips. All jolly exciting, but anyone who remembers the congestion chaos that befell Heathrow over Christmas will probably shudder at the thought of any itinerary that includes our busiest airport. Especially as even Heathrow's chief exec Tony Douglas has now admitted conditions are unacceptable, adding that the airport is in some ways ‘held together by sticking plaster'. Further bad news: it's not going to get any better till Terminal 5 opens in March 2008.

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

So what are the alternatives for travellers? The more adventurous may want to think about hopping on the Eurostar and heading down to Paris' Charles de Gaulle airport instead. That may sound ridiculous, but it beats spending three fog-bound days camped in the car park at Heathrow getting fed by an emergency soup kitchen.

Anyone who does so may be in for a pleasant surprise. Just as BAA is expanding its capacity with Heathrow's much-trumpeted Terminal 5 in 2008, Aéroports de Paris (ADP) is this month opening the Paris Gallery. MT flew there from Heathrow for a sneak preview of how the competition is squaring up.

Despite the direst expectations, it took only nine minutes to pass from the Heathrow Terminal tube platform through check in, security, and into the departure lounge. Admittedly it was 11am on a Tuesday. After only 20 minutes delay on the fog-free tarmac, flight AF 1571 was Paris bound. Coming into the cavernous concrete halls of Charles de Gaulle was a calming experience, especially in contrast to the depressing departure lounge at Heathrow, which had the atmosphere of a fruit machine-filled chain pub.

BAA has come in for huge amounts of flak in the wake of Philip Stephens' article in the FT last week. Sir Terence Conran, designer of the original Terminal 1, blamed BAA's ‘commercial passion for profit' for the ‘bazaar atmosphere that now pervades its terminals'. Terminal 5 will hardly help redress the balance between comfort and the cash till: a niggardly 500 seats will be available to users of the terminal. The ADP project on the other hand boasts 3,200m2 of shops and 1,400m2 of cafés, bars and restaurants, as well as 5,000 seats. All of this in a stunning 750m-long gallery offering views right across the airport - its design influenced by extensive customer polls.

ADP's chief exec Pierre Graff says that the new drive to increase capacity at ADP's three airports will cost 2.7bn euros and will increase capacity by 20m passengers a year in order to capture their market share. The new gallery will increase capacity, improve customer service, and due to well-integrated rail links improve the airport hub's overall efficiency. Graff added: ‘I am aware that BAA is opening a new terminal next year, and I am sure it will be a very impressive building. But of course their main problem is to increase the capacity in terms of slots, and runway capacity. I am conscious that we have a competitive advantage due to our seven [including Orly] runways. It is easy to build new terminals and satellites, but building runways is harder for political and environmental reasons.'

He may have a point, but for all its faults Heathrow has one ace up its sleeve. It doesn't matter how good an airport is; people have to want to visit. It's hard to escape the fact that London remains high in the premier league of global business destinations, whereas Paris is a mid-table journeyman to say the least. No amount of additional seating can compensate for that.

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