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London Heathrow

Published: 06/09/2011 - Filed under: Home » Archive » September 2011 » Special Reports »

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Airport operator BAA may still tout Heathrow as the “world’s busiest international airport” but the real wonder is that, given its location so close to a major capital city, it ever became not only London’s premier airport but also a transatlantic gateway for Europe.

Back in the 1930s, in west London’s Harmondsworth, it was more by luck than judgment that several grassy fields, which had been used during the First World War for rudimentary runways, were acquired by aircraft pioneer Richard Fairey to provide a test-site for his airplanes.

His Great Western Aerodrome, along with nearby land around the ancient village of Heath Row, was eventually requisitioned by the government during the Second World War as a long-haul RAF transport base, although it never became fully operational. 

Instead, in 1946 the Air Ministry decided the base – then styled as “London airport” – offered better existing and potential infrastructure. This meant it could become London’s main civil airport, replacing Croydon, which had been used by fighters rather than transport planes during the war and as a result had shorter runways.

The rest, as they say, is history. Heathrow airport (as London airport was renamed in 1966) grew as demand for air travel in the jet, and supersonic, ages boomed. From the 63,000 hardy passengers who experienced the primitive terminals in 1946 – mainly ex-military facilities – the airport saw just over 66 million passengers passing through last year, with about one third traveling on business. On average, 180,000 people use the airport every day, roughly split 50-50 between those arriving and departing.

Heathrow’s location on the edge of Europe has long made it the hub of choice for transatlantic travelers to Europe, enabling it to claim global leadership in terms of international passenger numbers, although Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson airport claims to be the world’s busiest in terms of passengers passing through.


Grow or No-Grow?

Whatever the competing claims, there’s no doubt Heathrow is a busy place, and likely to get busier. The question is, how much busier? Heathrow’s hopes of building a third runway (and a sixth terminal) to help alleviate congestion at the airport and meet anticipated growth in demand, were dashed when Britain’s Conservatives and Liberal Democrats formed their coalition government.

BAA had long been lobbying for a third runway at Heathrow, although it was not until early last year that the project was given the official go-ahead. Yet in spite of an extensive campaign called “Future Heathrow” – backed by the major airlines, trade unions and other organizations, including the International Air Transport Association (IATA) – the prospect of significant expansion of flights and passenger numbers and associated environmental problems failed to convince many critics of a third runway’s worth. Restricting the growth of Heathrow – and to a lesser extent Stansted – became a rallying cry for the green movement, a policy that, surprisingly, became part of the Conservative platform.

Thus David Cameron’s Tories eschewed the warnings of damage to UK economic growth if a new runway was blocked. The handwriting was on the wall and BAA subsequently withdrew its planning application for a new runway. The airport operator’s chief executive, Colin Matthews, still made clear that BAA continued “to believe that new capacity would strengthen the UK’s trading links with the global markets on which our economy and our competitiveness depend.”

According to research commissioned by the British Chambers of Commerce, which, unsurprisingly, believes there should be a third runway to boost the economy, Heathrow also appears to be falling behind its rivals in the growth of services to fast-growing emerging markets such as Brazil and China. All Heathrow’s major European rivals already have more runways – four at Paris-Charles de Gaulle and five at Amsterdam Schiphol (plus a smaller runway for light aircraft), with Frankfurt due to get a fourth one next year.

Even BA, the dominant airline at Heathrow with 41 per cent of the available slots, is talking about targeting Madrid-Barajas airport (four runways) for expansion since its merger with Iberia earlier this year.

“Aviation growth is not going to go away – it will just leave the UK and go to other parts of Europe,” says BA chief executive Willie Walsh. His view is reinforced by the fact that it is not just Heathrow that has had expansion blocked – the government has also ruled out new runways at Stansted and Gatwick airports in the foreseeable future.

Unless there is a radical change in the British political landscape, Heathrow will just have to get used to making best use of its current infrastructure. The emphasis is now twofold – improving access to the airport in an environmentally friendly way, and enhancing the experience within the airport itself through investment in terminals, communications and security.


Smarter, Faster, Better

For corporate travelers, the impact of the new runway being abandoned is not such a problem, at least in the short term. As Anne Godfrey, chief executive of the Guild of Travel Management Companies (GTMC), says: “What most business travelers want is for Heathrow just to work better and for them to be able to get to it easily.”

It seems likely now that Heathrow management will heed these words and refocus efforts on improving the airport’s operational performance without the distraction of grinding through the planning and implementation stages of a new runway and terminal. BAA has already made clear that the $1.1 billion or so of funds allocated for the early development of the expansion will now be diverted into other improvements, and it is talking to the airlines about what’s on their wish-lists. The government has also set up a task force of interested parties to consider Heathrow development, with initial recommendations due next spring.

Better access will come mainly thanks to two proposed rail development plans, which are in addition to the established Heathrow Express direct rail link. First, the $26 billion Crossrail project features an east-west cross-London route with a spur linking it with Heathrow Central and Terminal 4. It won’t be finished until 2017 at the earliest. Similarly, the $1.1 billion Airtrack proposal to link T5 to the South West Trains network – including services from Waterloo – is unlikely to be operational until 2016-17, and that’s only if everything goes without a hitch.

High-speed rail is also at the heart of the new government’s transport policy, with proposals suggesting that an initial 250 mph London to Birmingham service should be linked to Heathrow. But that, too, is coming under political fire and in any case, is unlikely to start before 2026.

Long before then, the key to the future of Heathrow probably lies with simply making it work better. 


Large Scale Renewal 

London Heathrow is a big, ungainly facility, the workplace of more than 70,000 people, and home to almost 90 carriers serving more than 170 destinations, with New York being the most popular. The price of all that rapid growth since the 1960’s has been a jumble of long-established terminal buildings and, for travelers, a confusing allocation of airlines to five separate facilities. 

The old buildings, however, have either gone or are going in a huge renewal exercise – T2 and the old Queen’s Building have been pulled down, and the first phase of the new Terminal 2 is due to rise from the ashes by 2014. At around the same time, Terminal 1 will be knocked down to pave the way for T2’s second phase, which is due for completion in 2019.

Terminals 3 and 4 have already undergone substantial refurbishments, including Virgin Atlantic’s new Upper Class “Drive Thru Check-In” at T3, and they will continue. Both have also been modified to accommodate the new A380 superjumbo now coming into service, as has British Airways’ home hub, Terminal 5. 

Even T5, which opened in 2008 and has recently welcomed its 50-millionth customer, is being expanded next year, getting a new satellite building (Terminal 5C). The expansion means 95 per cent of T5 passengers will be able to access their aircraft directly via an airbridge rather than from a bus – effectively benefiting an extra three million users every year. The expansion is also a timely boost for BA; with the Iberia merger the new building will provide enough space to operate Iberia’s services (at present it uses T3). BA has also confirmed it is talking to JAL about the possibility of the fellow Oneworld member moving to T5. 


Aligning Alliances

Apart from the physical regeneration of Heathrow’s terminals, airport management has also reassigned the airlines to reflect their membership in ever-growing alliances. Consequently, the Star Alliance carriers (including Lufthansa, Bmi and United Airlines), which are predominantly found in T1, will relocate to T2 when it opens. Terminal 4, which until the inauguration of T5 in 2008 was British Airways’ home, is now occupied by members of the SkyTeam alliance, including Air France, KLM and Delta Air Lines.

Apart from BA, the Oneworld carriers – which as well as Iberia and JAL include American Airlines and Cathay Pacific – are primarily located in T3, along with some Star carriers that aren’t using T1. Other non-aligned airlines are spread throughout T3 and T4.

Although the realignment has helped to reduce confusion, it can still cause problems for international passengers, especially those transferring to other flights (almost 40 per cent of those using the airport are transferring). Enhanced clarity of the terminal transfer system via the Heathrow Express or Underground is, however, under review. 

Extra spending on facilities has seen improvements in key areas – for example, T4 has expanded its capacity to handle 45 airlines (from the previous dozen) under the relocation program, with 33 new check-in desks bringing the number up to 127, and 40 self-service kiosks. Security and immigration are also being enhanced throughout to speed up the process – T3, for example, now has the airport’s largest security search area.


Retail Makeover

The shopping experience is not forgotten amidst all these changes. Terminal 3 is due to get a makeover by 2012, including the addition of new mid-market fashion outlets, as well as luxury brands. When T2 opens it will also include a dedicated collection of high-end brands, along with a champagne bar and restaurants with views of the departures area and runways. 

Getting from your car to the terminal may be a lot more high-tech. In the near future, the airport is hoping to launch an innovative transport link between Terminal 5 and the N3 business parking lot. The $40 million Heathrow Pod, which features environmentally friendly, driverless, battery-powered “pods” for four passengers will be available virtually on demand for the brief five-minute journey from the lot to the terminal along two and a half miles of track.

The system has not been without its bugs – it should have been launched last year and a formal opening date has yet to be publicly announced – but Heathrow management is confident it will soon be operational. If successful, the plan is to extend the system to link up all the terminals and parking lots.

This is not the only forward-thinking technology being deployed at the airport. A new $1.5 billion underground baggage-handling system is being constructed initially to link T5 to T3 and, eventually, the other terminals, ensuring that luggage for transfer passengers is processed seamlessly. Heathrow claims the system will be the largest of its kind in the world.

Heathrow may be facing uncertain times these days, but in some respects the airport is embracing the coming years with confidence. “The challenge is to maintain Heathrow as an international hub,“ 

Transport Secretary Phillip Hammond says. It is the government’s objective to secure Heathrow’s future within the constraints of two runways.” 

By David Churchill



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