London’s Future Infrastructure: Heathrow Airport

The latest in a series of members’ events looking at London’s future infrastructure was a visit to Heathrow on 18 April. A group of 20 London Region planners were given a series of presentations in the morning by senior staff from Heathrow Airport Limited:

  • Stephen Allen, Town Planning Manager
  • Simon Baugh, Director of Media and Public Relations
  • Chris Joyce, Surface Access Strategy Manager
  • Ian Groark, Head of Sustainability

These were followed by an escorted tour of the new Terminal 2 building which is due for completion next November and will open in 2014.


The Terminal 2 project represents the latest major investment in asset renewal there – £11 bn has been spent over the last decade with a further £3 bn programmed over the next 5 years.

The airport originally opened after World War 2 and had a Star of David runway configuration. Modern jet aircraft have now evolved so that a simple system of two parallel runways with a central “toast rack” of passenger facilities and taxiways for aircraft is the most effective operational layout.

Currently the main challenges facing the airport are:

  • Heathrow has a constrained site for an international hub airport covering an area of only 1,227 ha
  • Its two operational runways operate at 98% capacity
  • Noise generated by aircraft over flying the surrounding city necessitates mitigation via installation of double glazing and roof insulation for residential properties, preferential routeing and the alternation of runways for departures and arrivals so as to ensure aircraft are not constantly over flying individual areas of London
  • Night flights are limited to 3000 in winter and 3250 in summer months; effectively aircraft rarely take off or land between 23.30 and 04.30, the main night time arrivals take place between 04.30 and 06.30

Heathrow is unique in the UK in that it serves as a “Hub” airport. Other airports are unable to offer the critical mass it offers in terms of the number of long-haul destinations served. Airlines are able to operate a wider range of routes from hub airports by supplementing local demand with transfer passengers. These transfer passengers make the routes financially viable to airlines, where a direct ‘point-to-point’ connection relying on local demand alone would not. It is more viable for them to fill flights with a combination of passengers and freight flying from the hub city location direct on to a destination together with those transferring at the hub from elsewhere to fly on to that destination.

The problem Heathrow now has is that its limited capacity (its capacity is capped at 480k air traffic movements per annum compared to Schiphol with 600k and Madrid with 800k) means it cannot offer the same number of linkages which its larger European rivals are now doing – e.g. Frankfurt and Paris combined offer 2200 flights more per year to China and to a wider variety of Chinese cities than Heathrow is able to.

Independent economic analysis suggests the lack of capacity at Heathrow is likely to result in the UK suffering foregone trade with those cities not served by the airport – current estimates suggest this is in the order of £14 bn per year. The choice facing London seems to be should it offer:

  • no hub airport in future – and accept the loss of trading opportunities;
  • an expanded hub at Heathrow; or
  • a new hub elsewhere.

Proposals for new hub airports have primarily concentrated on the Thames Estuary and Stansted Airport. Heathrow’s view is that all the other proposals are further from central London than its 20km and would require substantial infrastructure investment to match the road and rail access it already has and the coming connectivity which Crossrail will and HS2 might offer. Additionally, many firms have already located to the west of London (notably several major international firms) in the M4 and M3 corridors to take advantage of the ease of access to the airport. Any new hub located to the east of London would have a major disruptive impact to these firms in terms of increased separation from the main international airport. There would also be a substantial loss of jobs in the west London economy as airport-related jobs migrated elsewhere if Heathrow was downgraded or even closed. Currently some 76k jobs are based at the airport with a further estimated 100k in airport-related jobs elsewhere.

The Davies Commission has asked for submissions on proposals for increasing hub capacity by 19 July. Heathrow Airport Limited intends making its submission then on what it believes is the best option for the airport’s future. Currently its vision for the two runway airport is based upon further terminal renewal and infrastructure replacement.

Terminal 2 (T2)

The T2 building now under construction measures 200m x 200m and is five storeys in height with an undulating roof design. Design features include north-facing roof lights to cut down solar glare and heat gain and a clear route through the building for passengers. Departure passengers will arrive at the west end of T2 and be directed up to the top floor. They will then have a central, single route through the building at that level passing through ticketing, baggage and security sections before descending to a large departure lounge at the east end of the building. Each stage of the route will be marked visually by a dipping in the roof above. External daylighting will be used as much as possible in the passenger areas and the roof will be covered inside by a fabric which both reflects natural light and will also allow different coloured lighting effects.

The departure lounge will be the main retail area, with seating for over 1300 people and with floor-to-ceiling windows looking eastwards across the airport.

Passengers arriving at T2 will either transfer there to the departure lounge or to the other Terminals for onward flights or follow a single central route through the building, again on one level through passport control, baggage reclaim and customs before arriving at the front hall at the west end of the building where further last-minute shopping will be provided “landside”.

The initial planning permission for T2 gave it a maximum operating capacity of 20 million passengers per annum. Once it opens in 2014 operations at the old Terminal 1 building will begin to be run down and it will be closed by 2016. This will allow for an extension northwards of the T2 building – for which planning consent has already been given. Once extended its final operating capacity in 2018 will be 30 million passengers per annum.

Images of what T2 will look like when complete can be found on the Heathrow Airport webpages.

Brian Whiteley.

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