I sometimes think the secret to great design is that you don’t even notice – it’s so simple and intuitive that you can hardly tell the time and effort which has gone into making it that way.
And that applies just as much to airports as everything else. Given the number of hours I spend in them, an afternoon at Heathrow might not seem like the obvious choice for my time in the UK.
But when it meant getting to see behind the scenes of the shiny new Terminal 2, opening six months from today in June 2014, I couldn’t resist.
Pristine and unpopulated. For now.
With project manager Neil Porter to show me around – a man who has practically every fact about this enormous undertaking at his fingertips – we headed through to see how the average passenger might experience the terminal, as well as its family-friendly side.
Which is where the beautiful design comes in. Everything in the terminal is designed to help travellers flow through, almost without the need for signs (although they’re still there).
For example, as you approach, you can instantly see the four check-in zones, then after the ranks of desks everyone is filtered through one (wide) entrance to security, and the first gates and planes are instantly visible as you emerge to the departure lounge.
Which way? Which way?
Equally on the way out, there’s a spacious baggage reclaim hall, with the exits unmissable in the middle. In fact, if you’re lucky enough to land at stands 16 or 17, with no hold baggage and an EU passport with a chip, it’s possible to get from the plane to your taxi in three and a half minutes. Not bad.
Then there’s a combination of technology and sensible thought to speed things up too.
At the check-in machines, you need to print your own luggage tags (unless you’re going to the traditional desks), while in Zone B, all the Star Alliance airlines have agreed that if there are queues for one flight and free agents, passengers can check in at any desk. Helpful.
Meanwhile security has 17 X-ray machines for economy passengers plus another seven for business class and crew which can be opened up. Each has 18m of belt, seats where you can get out of the way to put your shoes back on, plus a system to separate flagged bags and note to point out what needs checking so if you’re stopped, it shouldn’t be for long.
So what’s there for families? There’s special bays at the front of the car park, baby change in all toilets and some family toilets, plus a family lane planned at immigration. Outsize baggage drop-off is right by the main check-in, so you won’t be schlepping car seats and buggies around the terminal.
What there isn’t? There’s no designated family lane at security, although these have been trialled in other terminals during school holidays, so temporary ones might get set up during busy periods.
The soft play area will be back with an upgrade too. 50sq m will be enclosed in glass panels, so kids can still see the planes, then divided up into different age zones with comfy seats for parents (thank you!). Even better, there’s no hunting for it down hidden corridors as it’s right between gates A and B, but the glass walls mean it’s slightly closed off from other travellers too.
Spot your bag
And its name, the Queen’s Terminal, has inspired designers to theme the terminal around ‘what makes Britain great’. That means new oak panelling on the floor, a London taxi on a plinth (maybe a sculpture, maybe a hologram, that much is still a surprise).
Even the shops and restaurants are best of British. As well as the usual airport stalwarts (Boots, Dixons, WHSmith, Duty Free etc), there’s going to be a John Lewis store.
And while Terminal 5 boasts a two Michelin-starred chef in the guise of Gordon Ramsay, T2 goes one better with three – aka a Heston Blumenthal restaurant. He’s also going to be joined in T2 by four British female chefs using British-grown produce at The Gorgeous Kitchen.
Throw in The Wonder Tree, from the Giraffe group, and Leon, plus cafes and pubs, and you won’t be short of somewhere to eat, with some of the restaurants running ‘kids eat free’ offers during school holidays.
The finishing touch? When you emerge jetlagged and grumpy, then realise you can’t remember where you parked the car, cameras on every bay mean you just input your registration onto a computer and it will tell you where to go.
One way to keep the holiday feeling lasting a little bit longer.
Images copyright MummyTravels/Cathy Winston