Heathrow Airport

Year:1930-2014

Duration:84 years & ongoing

Cost:Unknown

Country: London, UK

What did this project achieve?

Create, develop and maintain an international airport for London and the south east

Planes have been taking off and landing at what is now Heathrow Airport for nearly 90 years. The first airfield on the site was set up by the Fairey Aviation Company in 1930.

The firm used its Great West Aerodrome to test military planes it manufactured for the British government.

The grass airfield was also known as Heathrow Aerodrome after the nearby hamlet on the edge of Hounslow Heath.

The site was developed for civil aviation after World War 2 and opened as London Airport in 1946. It was renamed Heathrow Airport in 1966.

Today, Heathrow is the busiest airport in Europe and the second busiest in the world. With four terminals and two runways, it’s used by 90 airlines flying to 185 destinations in 90 countries. In 2016, it handled nearly 76 million passengers.

A third runway is under consultation. The earliest opening date – if it goes ahead – will be 2025.

Difference Heathrow has made

More than 206,000 people fly in or out of Heathrow every day. The airport is an essential business and tourist hub for London and the south east.

The airport is one of the largest employment sites in London – over 76,000 people work inside its boundaries. Heathrow underpins a large section of the local economy.

Heathrow connects London and the south east with the rest of the world and helps support London’s status as a global capital.

How the airport was developed

Architect Sir Frederick Gibberd came up with the first development plan for what was then London Airport in 1951. He designed a layout of three terminals with a control tower at their centre.

Gibberd’s original six-runway layout (in the shape of a hexagon) has since been replaced with two much longer runways – today’s bigger jets need a longer take-off.

Terminal 5
Engineering highlights of recent years include construction of the steel frame-roofed Terminal 5 – the largest free-standing structure in the UK.

Some 60,000 people worked on the £4bn project, which took almost 20 years to plan and construct. It opened in 2008.

When it came to raising the roof into position, it wasn’t possible to use conventional cranes, as they would have cut into the airport’s radar field.

Engineers got around the problem by assembling the roof on the ground using smaller cranes. It was then lifted into place using eight custom-built towers, each fitted with two hydraulic jacks.

Terminal 2 (T2)
Heathrow’s most recent major engineering project. Phase 1 of the building opened in 2014, replacing the old Terminal 2.

T2 was designed to be as green as possible. It produces 40% less carbon dioxide than the buildings it replaced. Engineers achieved this by improving insulation.

Other energy savings were made by using large north-facing windows to flood the building with natural light, reducing the need for electric light.

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It’s the gateway to adventure

Tony Parsons

former writer-in-residence at Heathrow Airport, to Agence France-Presse (AFP), 7 August 2011

Fascinating facts

Heathrow sees 1,400 flights take off or land every day – that’s one every 45 seconds. It handles over 80% of long-haul flights coming into the UK.

Heathrow’s most popular destination is John F. Kennedy Airport, New York. Over 2.9m passengers flew the route in 2016.

Most of the roads in the airport have an initial letter code for their area: N for the north such as Newall Road, E for the east (Elmdon Road), S for the south (Stratford Road) and W for the west (Walrus Road). C is used for roads in the centre, such as Camborne Road.

The airport features in the 2003 rom-com ‘Love Actually’, but it’s not actors you’re seeing. The filmmakers shot footage of real people greeting loved ones and asked permission to use the pictures afterwards.

People who made it happen

  • Architect Sir Frederick Gibberd oversaw the first major expansion of the airport in 1951
  • Terminal 5 was built by Laing O’Rourke. Terminal 4 was built by Laing O’Rourke and Balfour Beatty
  • Hundreds of engineers have worked on projects on the site over the years

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