Friday, May 30, 2014

Bumps Not Unexpected En Route to First Ever Star Alliance Terminal

At Newark the night of my departure for London
Writing from London -- When I arrived at Newark Liberty International Airport earlier this week for my United Airlines flight to London, the check in agent had bad news; while a reservation appeared in her system, the ticket processed by Lufthansa, had not been generated. To fix this, I'd have to walk to the next terminal and get Lufthansa to sort it out. 

Forty-five minutes later the problem was solved. Only the exceedingly pleasant demeanor of the United agents mitigated my frustration at the disconnect between these two airlines, who are supposed to be thisclose as fellow members of the Star Alliance.

Reporters and photographers get a tour of the new terminal
The soon-to-open Queen's Terminal 2, at Heathrow is going to change all that, I am told. Very soon, the people flying on any of the 23 airlines in Star, will move "seamlessly" through the process from check in to baggage claim. If all goes well. At least in London.  

Common kiosks for check in
That's because the two dozen airlines along with Aer Lingus and Germanwings will now all be together in Terminal 2, the first terminal dedicated to the near exclusive use of members of one airline partnership. It will offer common automated boarding pass kiosks and baggage drops and gates so close to each other that minimum transfer times will be cut in half, from two hours to one.

Heathrow COO, Holland-Kaye talks to reporters
During a press tour of the terminal still abuzz with the activity of carpenters, carpeters and cleaners fishing up, Heathrow COO John Holland-Kaye told me that in earlier phases of the airport renovation, other airlines were also able to move their operations closer to their alliance partners. SkyTeam is in Terminal 4, oneworld's British Airways with a dominant presence in its home base, will contribute passengers to its own alliance housed in Terminals 3 and 5 while sending others over to SkyTeam and Star. 

Holland-Kaye said housing alliance airlines together is a benefit to passengers.

"It is terrific for transit passengers because it is much easier to transfer within a terminal than between terminals and it just makes it easier for Star to sell short connection times." 

The main "plaza" at Terminal 2
That is exactly what Star executives plan to use to wrest travelers away from the competition. But the alliance is also touting the user-friendliness of the Luis Vidal designed structure with its undulating ceiling, abundant natural light and 20 million passenger a year capacity that will expand to 30 million when the second phase of construction is completed at a date not yet set. 

Terminal designer, Luis Vidal
Explaining his decision to place a large open "plaza" at the center and make retail shops less conspicuous, Vidal insisted that airports should think of themselves as the first and last impression of the city. I heard that before when California's tiny Long Beach Airport underwent a renovation that tacked an open air bistro and passenger waiting area behind the airport's historic art deco building, to great effect. Small or large, making an airport into a welcoming place is a wonderful concept but it's not so easy to achieve. 

Sprucing up an airport isn't like installing a Jacuzzi where your 1950s-style tub/shower combo used to be. Enormous complications notwithstanding, there are some stellar airports in addition to Long Beach. Singapore's ChangiDenver International are two others that come to mind. Next week I'll be touring Doha's Hamad International which will be getting its first true workout with the arrival of airline executives from around the world for the International Air Transport Association annual meeting.  (Then there are the airports like New York's JFK that don't even try to be good.) 

The difference between those airports and Heathrow's ambitious remake of all of its terminals is vast. Heathrow is old and size restricted. The controversy over adding another runway is so heated, a final decision has been put off until after the 2015 parliamentary elections. Wait too long, some British tourism and commerce officials say, and the booming airports in Asia and the Gulf could siphon away enough of London's transfer traffic to make a new runway unnecessary, to the great economic disadvantage of the country.

Queen Elizabeth at Heathrow in 1969 photo courtesy Heathrow
Despite, or perhaps because of the challenges, Terminal 2 will officially open with great fanfare. Queen Elizabeth will cut the ribbon on the 23rd of June just as she did 60 years ago. (Click here for some wonderful photos of that event.)

In the meantime, United will be first to shake out the glitches when it begins to use the terminal on June 4. Sometime in the not-too-distant future, its fair to expect it will be "seamlessly" checking in customers whether they booked with United, Lufthansa or any other of their roommates in the Star Alliance terminal.

A worker points out some hard-to-reach smudges on the glass

Sealing the brickwork floors in front of the Queen's Terminal

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