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Heathrow's new control tower is located near Terminal Three. The control room, mounted on a steel mast, is five stories high and weighs more than 1,000 tons. (Søren Geertsen)

475,000 Takeoffs and Landings a Year

The Summer Games will bring 4,000 additional aircraft to London's airports. Find out what it takes to keep Heathrow running smoothly on a normal day.

Airport managers and airlines also want to start landing and taking off on both runways at the same time, which would let controllers put airplanes closer together and squeeze more in. They also want that third runway.

Current runway limits push airlines toward more profitable big airplanes that fly greater distances, leaving less runway space for shorter connecting flights. The solution, they say, is a new runway for the smaller airplanes that fly short routes, freeing the main runways for big ones. But that fix means the airport would reach beyond the façade of airport hotels and rental-car lots that surround it to take over towns to the north where “No third runway” signs outnumber flags supporting Britain’s World Cup soccer team.

The British government says the third runway will go forward only if the airplanes get quieter and cleaner—the air around Heathrow now violates European Union air standards—but the mayor of London and city councils around the airport still oppose the expansion. They’re urged on by a coalition of mothers worried their children’s schools will get wiped out and environmentalists who blame air travel for contributing to greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.
The runway would take out about 700 homes and other buildings.

“We’ve lived with the airport,” says Linda McCutcheon. The new runway would replace her home, as well as the house she grew up in, the church she got married in, and the schools her children attended. “We don’t want the airport to go away. We just don’t want it to get bigger. There will just be that many more airplanes. Where will they all go?”
Just Passing Through
Passengers at Heathrow enter an outdated and overtaxed world of parking garages turned into terminals, with ceilings so low that tall people hit their heads, moving walkways that suddenly stop moving, and blue plastic buckets on the floors of busy corridors to catch water dripping from the ceiling. Frank Bowron, a one-time Heathrow employee who travels frequently through the airport, has seen escalators feed so many people into the confines of an international connecting lobby that children had to be passed overhead to keep them out of the crush. Conditions like this would discourage even the most seasonsed travelers, which is why airport managers have a plan.

The future of Heathrow rises on the west end of the airport: a fifth terminal, built atop what used to be a sewage works, with more glass than a cathedral and the space of nearly 10 football fields on each of its five floors. The project includes a new control tower 285 feet high, more than twice as high as the old one. It’s the biggest construction project in Europe, and opens in 2008 with 60 new gates—a quarter of them big enough for the A380. It will ease crowding until about 2011—when the airport is expected to again max out.

About Michael Milstein

Michael Milstein is a freelance writer who specializes in science. He lives in Portland, Oregon.

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