A tale of two terminals


The British and the Chinese both built airports. Who did it better?

In March 2008, two of the most groundbreaking airport terminals in history were opened within two days of each other. Both terminals were designed by British architects – the Richard Rogers Partnership for Terminal 5 of Heathrow (T5) and Norman Foster for Beijing International’s Terminal 3 (T3). Both were built at astronomical costs, of US$8.5 billion and US$3.5 billion, respectively, to deal with the rising numbers of international passengers. Yet, for all their similarities, the terminals could not be more different in their construction and, most notably, how the media has treated them.

Since it opened on the morning of the 27 March, Heathrow’s T5 has been plagued by problems. From luggage misplacement to security issues, the spotlight of the press has glared brightly on every fault in T5’s system. A simple internet search will result in countless articles covering the "horrors" of T5 in great detail. The "national embarrassment" has not even been able to escape a mention in the tabloids, in connection with supermodel Naomi Campbell’s arrest. Although in time T5’s problems were systematically solved, the press and many public figures continued to seize opportunities to muddy Heathrow’s reputation.

Contrastingly, all accounts of Beijing’s T3 shine with praise. From news articles to tourist reviews, it seems that T3 is incapable of producing bad publicity. To begin with, not only did T3 cost less time and money to build, the end product also turned out to be unquestionably larger and more elaborately designed. Most importantly, T3’s efficiency has thus far been faultless. The harshest criticism the terminal has had to endure was from the 2008 Paralymic Games website, which simply stated that the terminal was not entirely prepared for participants of the games, but added that the problem was being rectified.

It would seem then that there is nothing about T3 for the media to criticise. However, Beijing International is not subject to the same scrutiny that Heathrow is persistently inflicted with. The fact that Beijing does not have to adhere to strict environmental regulations, 10,000 peasants were relocated, and 986,000 m² of land buried under concrete without provisions being made to preserve the existing

environment has, thus far, passed without comment. This may be attributed to Beijing’s comparatively humbler approach than Heathrow’s attempts to generate publicity, or the fact that Heathrow is subject to a notably liberal and ruthless press, whereas China is not so open to sharing its all its news.

Whatever the cause of the vastly different approaches the media has taken to judging these two terminals, it is ultimately up to the passengers themselves to form their own opinions.


First Published: 
August 2008


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Shan Bertelli is a Singaporean Italian who grew up in Zimbabwe and is currently attending the University of Edinburgh where she is studying English Literature and History of Art. She began traveling the world when she was 16 days old and hasn't stopped loving it.