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Heathrow Terminal 5 – Another rant about respecting conventions

This seems to be my theme at the moment. Respect conventions.

Respecting conventions doesn’t mean that you have to slavishly follow them, that would be boring and unnecessary, BUT if you *are* going to break with convention then make sure it is very well sign posted, otherwise people will make mistakes.

I give you terminal 5 at Heathrow. 

Firstly a quick question – how long before an international flight do you need to get to the airport? 

The vast majority of people would say that the conservative answer is 2 hours but they don’t usually give it quite that long. 

Another quick question – how long before a flight to a European destination do you need to get to Heathrow? 

Again, most people will give you an answer around the 1 hour mark.

Now… you may already know this, but if you want to fly from London Heathrow Terminal 5 to Istanbul in Turkey (as I did the other day – yes the weather is beautiful, thank you!) they want you to get there not one, not two, but THREE hours before your flight.

We arrived an hour before our flight the other day and were severely reprimanded and had to be given ‘permission’ to proceed from the check in desk to try to get our flight. Fortunately (for us) the entire security software system crashed and massive queues meant that most flights (including ours) were delayed and we made our flight with plenty of time to spare.

So, given that getting to the airport 3 hours before the flight is apparently a big deal for BA, and given that T5 is relatively new, and given that in all my years of international flights, I’ve never been expected to be anywhere any earlier than 2 hours before the flight, you might expect that BA would make a big song and dance about this 3 hour requirement.

You’d be wrong.

They *do* make a big song and dance about the fact that we were leaving from T5 and that T5 is a new terminal. I definitely knew that because they advised me at almost every interaction I had with them regarding this flight (and these days there are quite a few touchpoints between purchasing the ticket and boarding the flight). But what did they tell me about time?

This is an excerpt from the email they sent me one week before the flight, specifically to help me to prepare for my upcoming flight:

IMPORTANT: For flights departing from Terminal 5, you must pass through ticket presentation and security at least 35 minutes before the flight departs. For other important information about passport, visa and UK domestic flight security checks, please visit

So, honestly. Do they *really* expect me to turn up 3 hours early when this is the information they give me.

Perhaps they do, but I can tell you that a good portion of the passengers for the Istanbul flight were stuck in the security queue with us, having arrived much later than 3 hours before. And I doubt that it was because they were being naughty travelers, or that they liked the adrenaline rush of almost missing a flight. They just assumed, as we did, that turning up an hour before a flight from London to somewhere in Europe was the right thing to do, because that’s what we’ve done many times before.

This is what we do as humans. We make assumptions based on past experience and if we think we *know* how something works we don’t bother investigating it in detail, because we could spend our time and energy investigating things we think are new and interesting.

If people are making assumptions about your product, service or interface design and you’re *not* following the conventional approach, make sure whatever you’re doing differently is very clearly signposted. And then signposted again. Otherwise mistakes will happen.

And a customer who is making a mistake is very rarely a happy customer.

(disclaimer – yes, yes. I know that technical Istanbul is both European and Asian, doesn’t really make a difference to the discussion tho’)

7 thoughts on “Heathrow Terminal 5 – Another rant about respecting conventions

  1. Hi Leisa,

    I’ve been done by the same thing flying from Heathrow T4, and from City airport in the past.

    Just one word about the extra arrival time:


    The whole of T5 has been designed to make sure you spend as much time ogling expensive ‘duty free’ items as possible. They’ll tell you it’s about security, but it’s really about making T5 into the biggest shopping mall in the UK.

  2. BTW, if you want to do nitpicking: technically the Istanbul airport lies on the european side of the city :-P

  3. Thank you for giving me the language for a common gripe of mine. “Respecting conventions” is a very useful phrase. In some situations, it’s hard not to feel that a coroporate or government system has resorted to not respecting conventions in order to extract an additional fee, or to reduce the field of eligibles for a particular service.

  4. It’s strange. Kevin and I have always (even before we met each other) arrived at the airport 3 hours ahead of time for trans-Atlantic or other long-haul flights, and 2.5 hours ahead for European flights, even when we’ve checked in online. To me, the convention is 3 hours, not 2 or less.

    Maybe that come from the couple of years I spent living in Hounslow. Commuting home on the Piccadilly line provided me with ample examples of people who had not left enough time to get to Heathrow. The result was usually tears or swearing. But mostly I think it comes from having had so many flights where 3 hours is stated on thte tickets. Like you, I no longer check how long ahead of time I should check in – I just assume 3 hours. Of course, in Geneva this meant that I arrived 1 hour too early, and they laughed at me and told me to go away and come back later.

    Either way, it doesn’t really matter – the lack of communication is inexcusable.

    And btw, T5 doesn’t have any shops, according to BA’s in-flight magazine. It has shopportunities. Oh, how I wish I was kidding.

  5. Hiu there it’s been an absolute disgrace, I know some top long service people in BA and they’ve basically slashed there training budget and left the Customer Service people out to dry.

  6. I liked this article a lot. I used to travel a lot more than I do now but would hate when something like this happens. Respecting conventions that have been in place for a long time is important but as you said, there should have been plenty of ways to let you know you needed more time.

  7. who was it that said istanbul was on the european side?? I think not!! you drive in to the old part ( sultanahmet) along the side of the bosporus fron the airport and at no time do you cross via a bridge on to the european side!!

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