Seconds after a British Airways Boeing 747 touches down with a puff of burning rubber, Pete Wooldridge and Jim Davison pull onto one of two runways at London’s Heathrow International Airport in a yellow and orange sport utility vehicle. Their job is to inspect the pavement for debris, cracks, or anything else that could perturb a jet traveling at 100 mph. But as they cruise down the centerline, it’s tough to ignore the view through their windshield: five airliners lined up on approach, all speeding straight at them.
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Then the control tower radios orders: Vacate the runway. Wooldridge hits the gas and twists the wheel like he’s dodging a semi. The SUV lurches off the pavement at about 50 mph and jounces across the grassy shoulder as the tires of a Jet Airways Airbus A340-300 from India slam onto the runway, the airliner thundering past.
This is life at Europe’s busiest international airport, where the twin runways are some of the hardest working expanses of concrete on Earth. No other major airport moves so many airplanes and passengers through so little space, with so little time to spare. Any holdup reverberates around the world. Competition for landing rights is so fierce it’s the crux of international treaty negotiations (see “Finding a Place to Land,” p. 49).
But the cramped and crowded airport is in a battle for its future. Paris, Amsterdam, and other European airports boast more runways and space to handle the rising demand for air travel. Their flight schedules are growing while Heathrow is maxed out, hemmed in by residential areas and neighbors complaining noisily about noise.
The government’s response to the overcrowding is to float plans for giving Heathrow another runway, which would mean bulldozing centuries-old English villages off the map. People from surrounding villages promise, quite matter-of-factly, that before this happens, they will paralyze the airport with protests and lie in front of bulldozers. It has become, for Londoners, a kind of referendum on the future of commercial aviation: Unfurl new runways for an ever-expanding stream of global jet traffic that now has Heathrow bursting at the seams, or lay down limits on how far it can grow.
“The airport was a friendly employer years ago,” says Bryan Sobey, who started work at Heathrow as a young customs officer when the aircraft parked at the gates were Boeing Stratocruisers and Lockheed Constellations. He retired as a manager 15 years ago, and lives with his wife, Ann, in a working-class rowhouse just north of the airport. The windows are triple-paned and the walls lined with Styrofoam panels to mute airplane noise. His cluttered living room, with paintings of trains, bowling trophies on the walls, and cards celebrating the couple’s 55th wedding anniversary, sits where check-in desks and shops are to be located in a new terminal for the planned runway. Today, Sobey says, Heathrow is “like a dragon breaking out of its egg. It’s become an object of threat, really.”
The airport began amid shady maneuverings near the close of World War II, when Winston Churchill’s government used wartime powers to seize a small private aerodrome and a village called Heath Row for a Royal Air Force base to supply troops in the Far East. But Harold Balfour, Churchill’s undersecretary of state for air, later admitted that was only a ploy to get control of the prime land, 12 miles west of Victoria Station, for London’s main commercial airport.
No base ever appeared. But Heathrow airport did.
This put what would turn into the world’s most bustling international airport smack in densely populated West London, the first of what two top British planners called “a series of minor planning disasters that together make up one of the country’s truly great planning catastrophes.” An early scheme would have permitted the airport to grow by adding more runways to the north, the same location where the unpopular new runway is now proposed to go. But funds ran short, and in 1952 the scheme was dropped. Airport neighbors sighed with relief, and construction began on houses like Bryan Sobey’s.
So the airport grew without much of a plan at all. When flying became more affordable in the 1970s—round-trip tickets between London and New York in the 1950s cost more than $4,000 in today’s dollars—terminals popped up one by one, crammed between a nexus of runways and taxiways originally built in a Star of David pattern. The cheaper and more popular air travel became, the more Heathrow grew; new concourses inched like tentacles from the airport’s center onto the taxiways and runways. Eventually, they left only two parallel east-west runways that today send airplanes over the most populous parts of Europe’s second largest city.
The Air Traffic Two-Step
A 1978 government report estimated Heathrow’s capacity at 275,000 takeoffs and landings a year. Today, it manages about 475,000. The runways handle 1,370 takeoffs and landings in a day—up from 1,290 in 1995—all with no new pavement. They haven’t been widened or lengthened. But controllers have found ways to squeeze more aircraft onto them.
Air traffic controllers pride themselves on each week’s takeoff and landing stats—with number of minutes’ delay—which are displayed on a scoreboard-style readout in the air traffic center’s lobby. Martyn Jeffery recalls Heathrow’s record like a proud father. He is Heathrow’s general manager for National Air Traffic Services, once a government agency but now a private company that manages air traffic. The date was September 22, 2005: 48 arrivals and 52 departures in an hour—slightly less than one a minute.
Heathrow has gone 34 years without a major accident. The last was a British European Airways Trident that crashed just after takeoff in 1972, killing all 118 aboard. It was the nation’s worst air disaster—that is, until the bombing of a Pan Am 747 over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988. Collisions have happened—on the ground. At least three times since 2004, airplanes jostling for position on busy taxiways have bumped wings or rudders. In 2005, the crew of a United Airlines 777 that struck an Air Jamaica A340 while heading for a takeoff holding spot suggested the Airbus was closer than it would be at other airports. But investigators said, “This was not considered unusual for Heathrow.”
One of the trade secrets of Heathrow’s air traffic controllers is that they don’t think about the people. They focus on the airplanes, because considering the hundreds inside every one—sipping their complementary sodas and worrying about their connections—would rapidly overwhelm anyone, says Mark Hewitt, a control tower supervisor.
A trick to making the most of Heathrow’s runways comes clear in the routing of inbound airliners. They go first to one of four beacons at each corner of the airport, where they circle in stacks—each one 1,000 feet above the other—waiting for controllers to direct them in. For passengers, it’s frustrating. For controllers, the stacks supply a constant reservoir of airplanes to put—rapid-fire—onto the pavement. The steady stream of airplanes from the stacks guarantees the runways never go idle.