Heathrow Terminal 5: An IT Infrastructure success story

Despite T5’s operational problems, lost baggage and delays during the terminal’s first weeks, the technology infrastructure worked perfectly from day one. (All images via author)

Alastair Waite, Head of Market Management EMEA at ADC KRONE looks at the cabling behind the airport’s newest terminal – designed to handle 35 million passengers annually.

Despite T5’s operational problems, lost baggage and delays during the terminal’s first weeks, the technology infrastructure worked perfectly from day one. (All images via author)

With enough optical fibre to go round the equator, 2,485 miles (4,000km) of copper data cabling, 4,000 patch panels and 55,000 outlets spread over a site the size of more than 280 football pitches, Heathrow’s Terminal 5 was one of the largest airport building projects of our time.  It is doubling the size and capacity of Heathrow and possibly making it the world’s busiest airport by 2011.
Despite the operational problems, lost baggage and delays during the terminal’s first weeks, the technology infrastructure worked perfectly from day one.  It was designed for 24x7x365 fault-free operation.  BAA called on Virgin Media to design and implement the infrastructure which required a huge range of enterprise networking applications, based on copper and fibre connectivity solutions, to be deployed at T5.
ADC KRONE’s total networking solution, based on its TrueNet structured cabling system, combines copper and fibre connectivity with cable management products.  It facilitates a range of data and voice applications, covering everything from supplying the data for passenger information displays, check-in desk computer systems and baggage handling security, through to point-of-sale units at the terminal’s extensive retail and hospitality outlets.
Construction of Terminal 5 started in summer 2002 – following the longest planning inquiry in British history.  Apart from the main building T5A, it also comprises T5B, a satellite providing additional capacity and pier-served aircraft stands, and T5C, a second satellite facility.  All three are linked underground by a Tracked Transit System (TTS), where driverless trains shuttle passengers to their gates.  Other elements of the project include a six platform railway station underneath the main terminal, extensions to the London Underground Piccadilly Line and Heathrow Express, a spur road linking T5 to the M25 motorway, a new 285ft (87m) tall air traffic control tower and 60 aircraft stands.
The entire site covers 260 hectares, and its Airside Road Tunnel is almost a mile in length, making it the UK’s seventh longest road tunnel.  The steel used in the roof weighs 17,000 tonnes, while that in the internal structure, at 25,000 tonnes, is equal in weight to 148 Boeing 747s.
Construction of Terminal 5 started in summer 2002 – following the longest planning inquiry in British history. Apart from the main building T5A, it also comprises T5B, a satellite providing additional capacity and pier-served aircraft stands, and T5C, a second satellite facility.

For passengers, there are 96 self-service kiosks, over 90 fast bag drops, 54 standard check-in desks, and 11 baggage reclaim belts that travel a distance of 10 miles (17km) and can process 12,000 bags an hour.  Some 1,700 miles (2,735km) of electric power cable have been used, with 20,000 13 amp sockets installed.  ADC KRONE supplied more than 435 miles (700km) of fibre cable, with 3,500 fibre patch panels to interconnect the fibre backbone.
I feel that the external fibre – ADC KRONE’s steel wire armoured cable – has already proved its worth.  Following an emergency landing involving flight BA03 at Heathrow, the aircraft impacted many airfield services, but those carried by the armoured fibre cable continued to work.
All this infrastructure supports functions such as a 1,500 camera CCTV system, 1,100 secure access control points, a wireless LAN with 750 access points, and 2,800 telephones based on a hybrid architecture of analogue, digital and IP telephony.
Our cabling infrastructure supports virtually all the systems shown in Figure 1, even the radio and cellular communications are fed by the TrueNet fibre backbone.
The application areas listed under ‘Buildings’ in Figure 1 all use fibre backbone and copper horizontal Category 6 cabling: LAN and wireless LAN (WLAN), voice, CCTV, access control system (ACS), and Security Search; while TV uses just the fibre backbone.  The other three areas, Building Systems Integration (BSI), Airport Operational Systems (AOS) and Displays, covering flight information and baggage, also use the TrueNet cabling infrastructure.  Within the T5 project, ‘Buildings’ relates to all three terminals (T5A/B/C).
On the landside area is the multi-storey car park, an energy centre and several small ancillary buildings.  The apronssection concerns the clearing stands – areas around the buildings where aircraft park up for people to disembark.  All these stands have been provided with cabling infrastructure as well, to provide the same networking and communications facilities.
Pre-conditioned air systems are also supported, and supply cool air on-board the aircraft as passengers board.  Previously, this was done using the aircraft’s engines, but the new systems now pump cooled air into the cabin.  Also supported are: lighting control, building control and management systems – things like fan coolers and air handling units; metering (to show how much power and light is being used); digital media of various kinds other than the TV; and a network clock, which ensures all the terminal’s clocks are on time.
Construction of Terminal 5 started in summer 2002 – following the longest planning inquiry in British history. Apart from the main building T5A, it also comprises T5B, a satellite providing additional capacity and pier-served aircraft stands, and T5C, a second satellite facility.

Planning and installing the cabling, and other infrastructure elements for all the systems described so far, and then getting them to work together, might sound challenging enough. However, an equally demanding task is related to the right-hand side of Figure 1, titled ART (for Airside Road Tunnel) and HAL (Heathrow Airport Limited) integration.  T5 is providing increased capacity for Heathrow and for that to work effectively, it was crucial that all existing systems were seamlessly integrated with the new ones being created for T5.  Even though many of the functional systems being put into T5 were already in place elsewhere in the airport, it was often the case that the hardware, software and infrastructure supporting the new and the existing ones were different.  Integration was particularly important for applications like CCTV and supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA), which had to be viewable across both sides of the boundary.  Airport staff have to be able to use these systems to monitor and manage operations from the airport’s control centre.  Achieving this in an effective, seamless way represented a huge challenge.
The second element of ART and HAL integration, IT (see Figure 1), was equally, if not even more, challenging.  There are about 300 different software applications that BAA uses, which had to be implemented into T5, while the airside operational safety unit (AOSU) is, essential for the airfield area because it monitors the comings and goings for all non air traffic on the runways – anything from maintenance crews to construction and bird scarers.  Again, all this is dependent on the structured cabling, either fibre or copper backbone, or the internal, horizontal Category 6 cabling.
To achieve the required integration, it was first necessary to establish the physical layer of the network, in terms of the fibre and copper, and ensure it was sufficiently resilient and diverse.
Once that was in place, the core systems for the networks could be laid on top of the cabling.  Then it was a case of checking that the required connections worked well, and after that, ensuring people could actually view traffic from either end and control it.
“Although there were very unfortunate operational problems at the opening of T5, from the systems side, opening day was a success story.  Our IT systems and infrastructure were fully stable, as they had been for some time, and they performed as needed, to fulfil the user requirements.  We were happy!  BAA was happy with the IT systems and now that it’s fully operational, T5 is acclaimed as a major success story,” said Kevin McLoughlin, programme leader, Virgin Media.