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Heathrow Reinvented

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Heathrow Reinvented

Heathrow Reinvented
June 20
17:22 2016

Published in December 2014 issue

The opening of the ultra-modern Terminal 2 ushers in a new era at London’s main airport, but the issues presented by the lack of a third runway remain.

By Andreas Spaeth

There´s one image  that’s a favorite of John Holland- Kaye, the new chief executive of Heathrow Airport in London, when he gives presentations these days: the airport in the year 2030. No traces are left of the cluttered mass of the half-dozen seemingly unrelated buildings and of the entanglements of long and short runways and taxiways that had evolved since the 1940s. In the last ten years, a lot has changed at the world’s third biggest airport in passenger numbers.

In 2008, Terminal 5 for British Airways (BA/BAA) opened in the western end of the airport, enhancing the travel experience of at least the passengers of the British flag carrier. On June 4, 2014, Terminal 2, in the east of the airport’s grounds, opened its doors to the customers of 23 Star Alliance airlines. In the visionary depiction of the airport in 2030, these two terminal complexes are seen as main buildings, accompanied by five satellite concourses and Terminal 4 in the south. Somehow, this arrangement looks familiar and John Holland-Kaye, in an interview with Airways, openly admits why. “The layout is based on Atlanta, the biggest airport in passenger numbers worldwide, built for up to 140 million people a year,” he said. Last year, Atlanta handled 94.4 million passengers; London-Heathrow saw 72.3 million, but these already filled up 98% of the airport’s capacity.

The graphics depicting the airport in 2030 are available in two versions: one showing just the two currently existing runways; and another with a new, third runway to the north, currently still under discussion. It could be built for an estimated GBP 17bn (€21bn, USD 28bn) until 2025, at a distance of 1,035 meters (3,395 ft.) from the existing northern runway 09L/27R for parallel operations, boasting a length of 3,500 meters (11,482 ft.) and pushed out a mile to the west. This, argue the airport’s operators, would lead to 30% less people in the neighborhood being affected by severe noise compared to today, but only by moving the threshold on all three runways forward by one mile and introducing a 3.2° descent profile instead of the current 3°, meaning that aircraft would have to fly higher on approach.

“Our capacity problems can only be solved with a third runway,” stresses John Holland-Kaye, and he appears optimistic that this can finally be achieved. For years, a political struggle has dragged on about a new, third runway–– long overdue––in Southeastern England. By July 2015, the government established Airports Commission is due to give a recommendation on whether the new runway should be built in Heathrow or in Gatwick, which currently has just one runway. Heathrow’s advocates point out that the new runway should benefit a hub, which Gatwick is not. The pressure on Heathrow is huge to create more capacity. Currently, it can handle a maximum of 480,000 aircraft movements a year. In 2013, it saw actually 469,552 takeoffs and landings, an average of one every 45 seconds. Frankfurt and Paris-CDG, in comparison, each handle up to 700,000 annually; the new runway would push Heathrow ahead of both, with its capacity increased to 740,000 a year.

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Competition among the top airports in Europe and the Middle East is tough. Although Heathrow recorded an all-time record in July 2014, with 6.97 million passengers––an increase of 0.5% compared to July 2013–– it recently lost its top position to Dubai in terms of numbers of international passengers processed. “In the last two years, Paris-CDG has overtaken Heathrow in international transfer traffic,” complains John Holland-Kaye. In fact, not only Paris-CDG, but also Frankfurt and Amsterdam offer more direct international destinations. Heathrow is currently used by 82 airlines, serving 180 destinations in 85 countries without changing aircraft. Amsterdam admittedly serves as a the role model for Heathrow, especially with its minimum connecting time of only 45 minutes between international fl­ights, whereas the latter can now offer 60 minutes at best, having only recently cut down from 90. In any case, whether the third runway will ever be actually built is currently still up in the air.

London’s mayor, Boris Johnson, is persevering in his push for a totally new airport located on reclaimed land in the ames estuary; this, however, is estimated to cost GBP 112 billion (USD 186bn) and is therefore not a very realistic option. The fate of Heathrow will be determined by a decision for or against the third runway, as the airport would be unable to fulfill its function without it in the medium to long run.

As its operators put it: “For 350 years, Britain has been home to the world’s largest port or airport, with Heathrow providing the long-haul connectivity that has supported our trading position for decades. Today, that competitive advantage is gradually being for decades. Today, that competitive advantage is gradually being airports whilst we lose out in the race for connectivity to our rivals in Europe and Dubai.” However, its private owners––led by Spanish infrastructure conglomerate Ferrovial––have already invested about GBP 11bn (€14bn, USD 18bn) in Heathrow’s modernization over the last few years. e airport had long been neglected under the state ownership of the British Airports Authority and had become hopelessly outdated in many respects – accordingly, it was very much disliked by passengers.

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Today, the infamous “Heathrow hassle” is luckily mostly over for its users. “From now on, two thirds of our guests will be handled in the most modern buildings existing anywhere in the world,” stresses the airport’s CEO, indeed a remarkable feat for Heathrow. At the site of its old namesake, torn down in 2010, new Terminal 2 has been built under heavy restraints. “We are sandwiched in between two active runways. All the machinery and building material had to fit in a tunnel underneath the runways. There was much more freedom in building Terminal 5,” says Oscar Torrejon, project director for Terminal 2.

On June 23, 2014, Queen Elizabeth II opened the new “Queen’s Terminal”, having dedicated the now-gone Heathrow Central area with the “Queen’s Building” and control tower back in 1955, almost 60 years ago. Operations are being relocated to the new Terminal 2 step by step, with United Airlines having moved its 17 daily flights first on June 4, gradually followed by 22 others until October 15, when Swiss and Brussels Airlines will move in as the last new tenants. It had become clear that this cautious approach was the best way to go when serious––but temporary––baggage handling problems had emerged in both Terminals 5 and 2 at the end of June, prompting Thai Airways and Turkish Airlines to delay their respective moves into the new building.

Seemingly everybody is praising the new GBP 2.5bn (USD 4.1bn) addition to Heathrow, not least its architect, Spaniard Luis Vidal. “It’s one of the first buildings of the fourth generation,” he enthuses, “in which the wave-like shape of the roof is used to guide passengers to their aircraft.” He was particularly focused upon “intuitive way-finding, flexibility, natural light, texture and acoustics,” and sees the building as “a new Covent Garden for London.” Architecture critics are more sober in their reviews, but still praise the complex as functional and environmentally friendly.

With the opening of Terminal 2, Heathrow has, to a large degree, already reinvented itself. Until 2030, flights will depart only from the two newest terminals plus the already modernized Terminal 4. “We have about two-thirds of the way behind us,” finds John Holland-Kaye. This progress is reflected in the popularity of London’s biggest airport. In 2007, only 48% of passengers rated it “excellent,” whereas, in 2012, 74% did. Operators do not shy away from major investments to create a special atmosphere. Richard Wilson, one of Britain’s best-known sculptors, created a monumental artwork, called Slipstream, which greets all those arriving in the covered area between the building and the parking garage in a unique way. This silvery sculpture, constructed out of 77 tons of aluminum, measures 78 meters in length––longer than a Boeing 747 ̶ and still creates an atmosphere of weightlessness in the huge atrium it occupies. “It was fashioned after the flight path of an Edge 540 aerobatic aircraft created for us in the sky by world champion Paul Bonhomme” explains Richard Wilson. “It is an attempt to transport the excitement of an airshow into the architectural environment of an international airport terminal.” Production and installation took one year, and the British are rightly proud of their terminal’s inbuilt artwork.

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Mark Schwab is also proud; the CEO of Star Alliance can finally assemble all 23 member airlines (out of 26 in total) represented in Heathrow under one roof, instead of having them split among three different buildings. No other airport has a greater presence of Star Alliance carriers than Heathrow. “It was a decade in the making between us and the airport. You won’t find such a functionality as in this building anywhere else in the world,” he enthuses. “People like me, who just travel with cabin baggage, can avoid stopping anywhere and breeze through the terminal to the gate in just three minutes.” They can even enjoy the high ceilings and natural light at any one of the 21 security checkpoints.

The lighting permeates through the wave-shaped window openings and is cleverly reflected by the roof membrane made of silicone-coated fiber. No hint remains of the dark and depressing catacomb that was the old Heathrow. After passing through, passengers emerge onto an airy balcony and reach the spacious departure lounge. Just by looking around there, it becomes obvious why Heathrow has won the title of Best Airport Retail and Restaurant Offering for four years in a row in the Skytrax poll. “We want to offer the best of modern Great Britain”, says Muriel Zingraff- Shariff, retail director of Heathrow. “60% of the brands represented are British.” A total of 63 shops and restaurants are present in Terminal 2, compared to the building’s floor space, this amounts to almost a third more than there are in the bigger Terminal 5. But then, retail revenues have always played a bigger role in Heathrow’s business model tan aeronautical charges.


About Author

Andreas Spaeth

Andreas Spaeth

Based in Hamburg, Germany, lifelong passenger aviation geek, aviation journalist, book author, TV expert and avid traveler to over 100 countries and counting.

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