Heathrow airport

Heathrow airport
London borough of Hillingdon
12 February 2007

Quite unlike the glamorous London airport in which Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor were stranded in The VIPs, the real Heathrow has grown overcrowded and ungainly.1 Its four older terminals are each with their own incongruous extensions, all in varying stages of decay and disrepair. And, so far, its brand-new fifth terminal seems to have caused more problems than it has solved.

“Very, very British,” Ian Nairn once described the airport. “A tragic-comedy of muddle and architecture running at too low a voltage.”2

Heathrow’s five terminals are together the world’s busiest international airport, with some 90 airlines making it their base. Until recently, British Airways operated from Terminal 4, built in 1986, and Terminal 1, which dates from 1968.

On 27 March 2008, it moved most of its flights to a single new buiding: the 260-hectare Terminal 5, built on the former site of a sewage plant to the west of the airport. The rest of the airline’s operations will move into the terminal later in the year and work on a second phase will then continue until 2010.

Despite Britain’s longest ever planning enquiry, Terminal 5 was opened on time and on budget. At a cost of £4.3bn, the immense glazed structure, with its curved single-span roof, was designed by Richard Rogers. The scheme should provide extra capacity for 30 million people a year.

Before it opened, the airport’s owner, BAA, claimed that the new terminal will not only solve the problem of overcrowding at Heathrow, it will also be enough to deal with the growing number of travellers expected over the coming years. But the weeks of delays and cancelled flights, resulting from terminal’s “teething troubles” and BA’s ill-prepared staff, do not bode well.

Once BA has moved completely, BAA plan to close Terminal 1 and Heathrow’s oldest terminal: the Frederick Gibberd-designed Terminal 2, which was built in 1955 as one of London airport’s first buildings. This will provide a rare opportunity for a major redevelopment at the airport and so a new building has been proposed for the site of Terminal 2 and the Queens Building offices.

According to BAA, Heathrow East will be “an environmentally sensitive building” that “will deliver a light, spacious and modern environment, a terminal that is easy to use with clear way-finding and world-class facilities”.3 As the development is on a brownfield site and has not been designed to increase capacity — it will actually handle slightly fewer passengers than the existing terminals — it is less likely to receive the drawn-out planning process that hindered Terminal 5.

More controversial is the possibility of a third runway, set out in a government white paper, to be built between 2015 and 2020. Advocates argue that if Britain’s largest airport does not expand to cope with new demand, foreign investors could be lost.

Richard Branson, whose Virgin Atlantic operates from Heathrow, strongly supports the runway. He told the BBC that without the development “the UK and Heathrow in particular is in serious risk of losing its pre-eminence in European and world aviation”.4

Others are, however, less welcoming, not least the inhabitants of the village of Sipson, whose 700 houses would need to be demolished to make way for the runway. The Greater London authority, Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, the National Trust and numerous local councils and organisations vehemently oppose Heathrow’s expansion.5 The loss of homes, the destruction of historical sites, the impact on wildlife, increased air pollution and the effect on global climate change are all, of course, sensitive issues.

But the airport’s growth is unlikely to worry JG Ballard, the author and resident of nearby Shepperton. In an article for the Observer in 1997, he wrote of his appreciation of airports which, he thought, had escaped the kitsch and nostalgia that characterises much of modern Britain’s public architecture. “As far as I know, there are no half-timbered terminal buildings or pebble-dashed control towers.”6

Ballard praised the “period charm” of Heathrow’s early terminals but wrote:

I look forward to their replacement in due course, and to terminal Five, and beyond that to terminals Six and Seven, and the transformation of Britain into the ultimate departure lounge. After all, we have every reason to leave.

BA will move its remaining flights into Terminal 5 during the summer and BAA hopes Heathrow East to be ready for the 2012 Olympic Games. (Last edited: 20 May 2008)

Update 20 May 2008:

Ken Livingstone and the London borough of Hillingdon granted planning permission for Heathrow East in June 2007. After BA moves all of its operations into Terminal 5, BAA will start construction of Heathrow East (to be designed by Norman Foster), along with modernisation of Terminals 3 and 4. A new forecourt at Terminal 3 was completed in late 2007.

Around 1,500 environmental activists formed a Camp for Climate Action outside Heathrow, during August 2007, protesting against the airport’s expansion. Local communities and John McDonnell, MP for Hayes and Harlington, supported the Climate Camp.

In November 2007, Ruth Kelly, the transport secretary, launched a three-month consultation on a third runway as well as a sixth terminal. The government backs the runway proposal, though the mayor of London and Hillingdon council are against it.

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