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25 February 2024

The East can help Britain gain greater vision

By David Robertson


Travelling through the world’s busiest airport promises to get a little less dreadful from the end of this month when Heathrow’s Terminal 5 finally opens to the public.

As any frequent flier knows, Heathrow is a disgrace. London’s main airport is the gateway between Europe and the world but its infrastructure would shame the darkest heart of Africa.


The entire airport has the feel of an experiment on the tolerance levels of mice. Every time the mice look to be getting used to the discomfort of their surroundings, the experiment is changed and things get worse again.


Then there are the queues. The English like to queue but it seems a bit unfair to inflict this pastime on the rest of the world’s travellers.


The airlines that operate from Heathrow attempt to carve out an oasis where their business class passengers can escape from the horror but passengers in cattle-class are left with nothing to do but shop – regressive taxation if ever there was. It is saying something when economy-class passengers cannot wait to escape Heathrow’s terminals for the calm and comfort of their plane seats.


Heathrow’s infrastructure is old and far too small to cope with the numbers passing through its facilities, and that is a terrible indictment on an airport that aspires to remain Europe’s link with Asia and the Middle East. The completion of Terminal 5 is, therefore, of enormous economic importance to the United Kingdom and Europe and a boon to the sanity of passengers passing through it.


Her Majesty The Queen was at Heathrow last week to officially open T5 and commercial flights will begin on March 27. But that is about as positive as I can get about T5. My concern is not with its aesthetics – although it does look like a giant shed. My concern is not even whether its 18 kilometres of baggage conveyers will work – but let’s just say I’ll be travelling light in future.


What annoys me about T5 is that it highlights just how bereft of ambition Britain has become.


Shortly before The Queen visited T5, another royal was looking around another new airport terminal and at first glance the two projects look similar.


His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice-President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, took a tour of the new Terminal 3 at Dubai International Airport last week and what he saw was a facility designed to do the same thing as T5.
Dubia’s new terminal will increase the airport’s capacity by 43 million passengers a year, just as T5 will increase Heathrow’s capacity by a similar amount.

T5 did admittedly cost twice as much as Dubai’s T3 (£4.3 billion, Dh31.77bn) and took 19 years to get off the ground.


But the real difference between these two new terminals is in ambition. Heathrow is being expanded decades after it needed the extra capacity while Dubai is planning for the future. The addition of T3 will give Dubai a capacity of 60 to 70 million passengers a year even though the airport only handled 34 million in 2007.


Dubai’s planners have such grand visions for the future that they believe even this surplus capacity will not be enough and the vast Dubai World Central is now taking shape out at Jebel Ali.


I’ve stood in the offices of Dubai World Central and looked at a model of the massive airport city they are building and it defies belief. Only a state that truly believes its time has come would embark on such a massive project.


Admittedly, there are plans to add a third runway and sixth terminal at Heathrow but this itself as an admission of small-minded compromise by the British government. The proposed third runway is so small it cannot take the longhaul planes that make Heathrow an international gateway and the sixth terminal will only slightly increase capacity.

A real statement of Britain’s determination to be a global player in the future would be to bulldoze Heathrow – and a good revenue-raising tactic might be to auction off the demolition work.


Britain needs to get rid of Heathrow and start again with a giant airport east of London. That is the only way London will compete with Dubai, Singapore, Hong Kong and Beijing. Unfortunately it will never happen. If you want vision these days, you have to go East.


(David Robertson is business correspondent for The Times of London)