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Amol Rajan: In awe of Terminal 5

Posted by Eagle Eye
  • Wednesday, 25 November 2009 at 02:41 pm
My brother and I picked up my dad, who was returning from India, at Heathrow's Terminal 5 this morning.

It reminded me of an argument we had in a recent leader conference. The general tenor was unusually gloomy, with most of my comrades moaning about how appalling the design of Terminal 5 is, how impractical parts of it are, how hideous the architecture is and so on.

I took exception to this. And this morning's expedition confirmed my reasons for so doing.

Partly because of the achievement of the eco-lobby in moving environmentalism into the mainstream, and partly because of the general cynicism of much of the British public, the reputation of the aviation industry has taken a battering in recent years. This was reinforced by the terrible opening few days that Terminal 5 had.

I think this is a great shame. Terminal 5 is an extraordinary achievement, a testament to human ingenuity and innovation, and a practical manifestation of so many of the delicious possibilities brought about by globalisation. If one considers the whole grand sweep of civilisation, and thinks how miraculous air travel would have seemed even to the Victorians, never mind the Romans, it must be considered highly rergettable that aviation is now imbued with the kind of despondency and dissatisfaction familiar to the everyday consumer.

Those middle-class folk in Britain who lament the difficulty they have moving their suitcase between baggage and passport control should remember that most people currently on the surface of the earth will never experience the delight of air travel. They should try, if their brains allow them, to recall not only the spirit of the Wright Brothers, but the hopes of their contemporaries. They should read Alain de Botton's dispatches as writer-in-residence at Heathrow.

Building another runway probably would be bad policy, and probably would reinforce a 1940s planning error. But rather than seeing Terminal 5 and the industry it represents as a modern tale of woe, we'd do well as a society to look back upon history and see its sheer improbability.

We might then see that, both literally and metaphorically, Terminal 5 is a kind of apogee or high point of our escape from barbarism. That journey, even the miserabilists might agree, has been one worth making.