Airport needs high-wire artists after 60% of lamps in departures hall fail, reveals e-mail

By Nick Fielding | 23 November 2013

“Various things have been investigated in the past five years (eg gondolas and high-level cherry pickers)”
– Vicki O’Brien, head of Heathrow customer service, British Airways

How many people does it take to change a light bulb in the roof inside Heathrow airport’s Terminal 5? No one at London’s main airport knows. But they do need to be high-wire artists.

The departures concourse of the futuristic, award-winning terminal has become increasingly dark since it opened with much fanfare – and chaos – in 2008. Exaro has obtained a copy of an e-mail – sent to staff by a senior manager – that sheds a little light on the murky problem.

The airport’s owners had overlooked a basic issue – a safe and easy way to replace the tens of thousands of light bulbs that illuminate the departures concourse from its high ceiling. Not one has been replaced in more than five years.

Since 2008, however, most of the “down lighters” have failed, the e-mail reveals. This has made the large concourse ever dimmer.

Passengers of British Airways, the main airline that uses T5, are increasingly complaining about the dimwits at London Heathrow.

Vicki O’Brien, head of Heathrow customer service at British Airways, sent an e-mail to staff to say that all the light bulbs are to be changed – by high-wire artists. The project to change the light bulbs will last nearly four months, according to her e-mail. Sources estimated that it will cost several millions pounds.

O’Brien begins her e-mail: “As many of you will have seen recently, the departures concourse has been becoming darker than normal in the late afternoons/evenings as well as in the early mornings.”

“We recognised this as an issue several months ago, and have been working with Heathrow and your Health & Safety reps on an acceptable resolution.

“The reason for the poor light is that 60 per cent of the existing down lighters above the departures concourse have failed, and until recently Heathrow had no viable way to replace them.

“Since T5 was opened in March ’08, there have always been challenges for Heathrow with replacing blown light bulbs. Various things have been investigated in the past five years (eg gondolas and high-level cherry pickers), but for a number of reasons, none of these was practical or safe.

“The good news is that Heathrow has now identified a safe and robust way to replace all of the light bulbs, and this is high-level rope work carried out by a specialist company.”

Following months of discussions over how to tackle the issue, she adds, the airport’s operators had “agreed that the entire departures ceiling will be relamped.”

Sources told Exaro that it is a big project. The terminal houses the world’s largest controlled-lighting system, with 120,000 light fittings and 2,600 sensors designed to switch off lights when no motion is detected. The aim is to replace bulbs with LEDs (light-emitting diodes) that are expected to last at least five years.

The airport is also planning to replace “task lights” on the concourse, after complaints from staff that they are not bright enough to see paperwork on desks.

One source told Exaro that T5 had turned into a farce. “Five years on, and they have not been able to change a single light bulb. It is one of the few jobs that can be done without the use of a qualified electrician, and they are going to have to rely on a team from Cirque du Soleil,” he joked.

A Heathrow spokesman told Exaro: “The current lighting on the Terminal 5 concourse is being replaced with environmentally friendly LED bulbs that will last for up to five years. Contingency lighting has been used on the concourse while a viable and safe solution of replacing the lights was being agreed.”

He declined to say how much the contract would cost.

Heathrow Airport Holdings, formerly known as BAA, owns the airport. The company is owned by FGP Topco, a consortium that includes Ferrovial, the Spanish infrastructure group, and sovereign wealth funds in Qatar, Singapore and China.

Last year, Heathrow’s T5 was voted the World’s ‘Best Airport’ terminal in a survey of airline passengers, beating Singapore’s Changi Airport and Beijing Capital International Airport for the top award. T5 was “a firm favourite with passengers” despite “teething problems” when it opened.

Exaro today publishes the O’Brien e-mail in full.

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