By Mann+Hummel GmbH
London Heathrow, Terminal 5: Steel, glass and concrete characterize the modern, highly functional building. When it was opened in 2008, T5 was considered a wonder of architecture as the largest free-standing building in the United Kingdom. Supported by twenty steel beams, the metal and glass roof floats 40 meters above the five stories of the terminal.
The babble of travelers' voices mixes with the noises of tapping heels and rolling suitcases. Each day, more than 80,000 passengers go through T5 alone. Heathrow as a whole sees more than twice that number. It's a massive challenge for human resources, logistics and systems. And not least because all these people, out to the farthest corner of the five terminals, have to be supplied with clean breathing air.
We talked to Tom Bromley and Wayne Young. They are service technicians at Mann+Hummel, and were willing to take us along into the inner workings of the airport. Down where no passengers are allowed to go - where they work to ensure that the building is supplied with filtered air around the clock. Before we started our look behind the scenes, the technicians impressed us with a few facts. They maintain 916 air conditioners in four of the five terminals of the airport and the other buildings on the grounds. That includes three air intake systems in T5. In total, they're responsible for 8,641 filters.
"Our task is to remove all the contaminated filters after a year, install new ones in their place and ensure that the filter system is always handed over to the customer in perfect condition," explains Tom Bromley. For this purpose, they have to visit Heathrow several times a month, sometimes for two weeks at a time. The pair have worked together at the airport for ten years, about five of these for Mann+Hummel. Their area of responsibility also includes some leading universities as well as some hospitals in the Greater London area.
In a different world
One guard and two security doors later, and we are in a different world. The glittering polish of the arrivals hall is far behind us. Instead, we're winding our way through narrow corridors to reach a small elevator that we use to go down another two floors. There's no map that shows these rooms. "This is worth seeing," says Bromley with a laugh. They know exactly when they have to replace each filter and where it is. Passing cabinets full of electronics and technology, we follow the two men along the neon tubes, finally reaching what looks like a huge boiler room with an atmosphere dominated entirely by the noise of ventilation systems.
Then Young opens one of the many cabinet doors - and there they are: the filters. Coated with a greyish layer of dust and dirt, they resemble nothing more than a massive vacuum cleaner filter that hasn't been changed for quite some time. The filters have prevented all that dirt from getting into the interior of the terminal and ending up in the air that the passengers breathe. At Heathrow, aircraft take off and land every second, burdening the air around them with all kinds of hazardous materials. That just makes it even more essential to filter out those materials before they reach the interior of the terminal. Large pipes draw in fresh air from outdoors and direct it through the filter cabinets before it reaches the passenger zones.
Working through the night
To replace the filters, Bromley and Young, each equipped with eight filter pockets, take frames off their guide rails and replace them with frames containing new filters. It's strenuous work, that requires a lot of concentration and focus. In spring, they had just five nights to replace all 726 filters in the terminal's three large air chambers. Because operation of the systems shouldn't be affected or interrupted for as short a time as possible, they had to work at night. Changes in the smaller air conditioners can fortunately be done with the systems still in operation, so the two only need to worry about working nights for one week a year.
Of course, they sometimes argue during such stressful situations, they report. But they still have plenty of fun at work. They are a practiced team, with every movement, every manual action instinctively correct.
Now we go to Terminal 1, the oldest terminal in the airport. Here, everything is a little less glamorous, but the difference between the passenger zone and "backstage" is just as extreme. To get there, we have to go through one of the usual personal inspections. Just like any airport employees who work in secure areas.
"The security inspections are absolutely essential. After all, they serve the safety of both passengers and employees. However, they still cost us a lot of time in our daily work," says Young. Almost as much as the inspection of the roller cart they use to bring filters into the airport and to the individual air conditioning systems. "When we bring in new filters from outside the airport, the security checks can take up to a day," says Bromley. That's valuable time that they have to make up elsewhere. So both try to work even faster and more conscientiously when replacing filters. "At the end of the day, it makes us proud to have fulfilled our quota."
Even though they do their work far from the gleaming steel and glass, and most travelers are barely aware of the service they provide, Young and Bromley know that they make a significant contribution to the working of the airport.