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Is it the best known airport in the world?  Heathrow claims to be the busiest, but doesn't have the audacity to also claim to be the best loved.

Although suffering a bad reputation for the last many years due to operating beyond design capacity, the airport is now improving and the chances are your next Heathrow experience may be better than in the past.

 
 
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London Heathrow Airport (LHR)

London's best known and largest airport
 

If you're driving to Heathrow, you need to realize that the five terminals are located in three very different areas.  Know which terminal you will be flying out of before you drive to the airport.

Part three of a seven part series on London's airports - please also visit

1.  About London's airports in General
2.  London's Best and Worst Airports and Why
3.  London Heathrow Airport LHR

4.  London Gatwick Airport LGW
5.  London Stansted Airport STN
6.  London Luton Airport LTN
7.  London City Airport LCY

 

 

The good news and the bad news are the same for Heathrow - it is London's biggest and busiest airport.

This gives you lots of flight connection options and lots of airport services, but it also gives you congestion and potential hassle.

The new Terminal 5 has definitely helped relieve the airport's congestion, and Heathrow may possibly be able to end up as being validly your favorite airport in the future.

An introduction to London Heathrow Airport (LHR)

Heathrow is one of the very busiest airports in the world (its exact ranking depends on if you are counting in/out flights or actual passenger numbers).  In terms of passenger numbers, it scores as the world's third largest.  The airport's own website describes it as the world's busiest international airport without giving the details for this claim.

It has 92 airlines that operate flights, serving 187 destinations.  British Airways, bmi and Virgin Atlantic Airways have their major hubs at Heathrow.

The airport operates 24 hrs a day with no curfew restrictions on flights.  Currently it has two runways and five terminals.

It is the second closest of the airports around London (tiny London City Airport being the closest).

The History of London Heathrow Airport

Heathrow's history stretches back all the way to World War 1, when it was first used as a military airfield.  After the war, the airfield moved into private ownership, owned by the Fairey Aviation Company, an enterprise that made a range of military aircraft, particularly in the 1920s and 1930s.  They assembled and flight tested their planes from the airfield, which became known in the 1930s as the Great Western Aerodrome.

In 1944 the airfield was requisitioned by the Air Ministry, but before work on developing the airfield was completed, the war ended.  London needed a larger airport to replace the no-longer sufficient facility at Croydon (formerly London's main airport), and it was determined that Heathrow, with one runway already in place, would meet the needs well.  This determination was made after considering 52 different potential sites around London.

In 1946 the Ministry of Civil Aviation took over the airfield, with its first terminal being an army surplus tent.  The first public flights followed on 31 May (variously described as an inbound flight from Australia and/or an outbound flight to Argentina), and from that point, Heathrow has never looked back.

Additional land was purchased for the airport, with the small village of Heath Row being folded into the airport development, hence the name of the airport, Heathrow.

In 1947 two more runways were completed, and work was proceeding on three more runways (which ended up never being completed).

The third runway subsequently was repurposed as a taxiway only, leaving Heathrow with two parallel runways at present.

Heathrow's Five Terminals

The tent terminal remained for a long time - perhaps presaging the ongoing slowness and delays in development at Heathrow.  A permanent building was finally erected in the early 1950s.

The building we now know as Terminal 2 (originally known as the Europa Building) was opened in 1955, followed by Terminal 3 (originally known as the Oceanic Terminal) in 1961, and then Terminal 1 in 1968.

Terminal 4 opened in 1986 on the south side of the airport, and Terminal 5 opened in 2008, on the western side of the airport.  Although now open, it is still being developed and extended and will not be fully operational until 2011.

The Terminal 5 project was not a quick one to be completed.  It was first mooted back in 1982, an architect was chosen in 1989, a formal planning application was lodged in 1993, and after a public enquiry that ran until March 1999, approval was finally granted in November 2001.

Terminal 2 is now being closed and is slated for demolition.  It will be replaced by a new terminal, Heathrow East, due to open in 2012 in time for London's hosting of the Olympics.

There are proposals for a Terminal 6 as part of an airport expansion that would also see another (third) runway being added, but this has yet to be confirmed.

In 2006, the new 105 million Pier 6 was completed at Terminal 3 in order to accommodate the Airbus A380 superjumbo.  The new Terminal 5 can also handle A380s.

Singapore Airlines is the first to operate regular flights using the Airbus A380, with Qantas and Emirates adding their A380 services too.  Heathrow projects that it will become a major hub for A380 services around the world.  Due to the scarcity and value of Heathrow's 'slots' - the rights for an airplane to land and take-off; with restrictions on the number of flights, there is a natural tendency to, if the route supports it, use the biggest plane possible, which favors deployment of the A380 on routes to/from Heathrow.

Terminals 1, 2, and 3 are used by a variety of airlines.  Terminal 4 is being repurposed for the use of the Skyteam alliance carriers, and currently Terminal 5 is being used exclusively by British Airways.

Although terminals 1, 2 (now closed) and 3 tend to be viewed as being all uniformly similar, crowded, and dowdy, there are some highlights, most notably of which would be Virgin Atlantic's multiple award winning Clubhouse facilities in Terminal 3, indeed, Virgin is so proud of the entire Terminal 3 experience it offers to its passengers (and perhaps feeling a bit overlooked with the publicity surrounding BA's new Terminal 5) it has created a special website about that only.

Future Plans for Heathrow

Heathrow's future is mired in public controversy and accordingly is very difficult to predict.

Underpinning Heathrow's future is the fact that it is currently being used by more people a year than its theoretical design capacity, and its runways are being used at almost 100% of design capacity.  This gives the airport very little margin to compensate for weather or other occasional constraints, and stresses its various systems and services.

The new Terminal 5, and the ongoing program of upgrading/replacing Terminal 2 is helping Heathrow's ground handling capabilities, and when Terminal 5 is fully operational, it is thought that Heathrow will be able to handle about 90 million passengers a year, which contrasts favorably with its current annual passenger count of about 67 million (and its design capacity, variously considered to be somewhere between 45 - 55 million passengers).

But the two runways represent the other part of the constraint.  Accordingly, a third runway was approved by the UK government in early 2009, which could potentially increase the number of aircraft movements from a current 480,000 up to about 550,000.

With a new third runway and a sixth terminal, Heathrow could handle about 115 million passengers/year.

Although the runway has now been given governmental approval, there are still many levels of bureaucracy that need to okay the development, and a vocal coalition of national environmental groups and local residents are dedicated to opposing Heathrow's growth every possible way they can.

In addition, the opposition Conservative party, which currently seems likely to win the next general election in the UK, has come out opposed to the third runway, suggesting instead to connect Heathrow to the rail network, allowing connecting passengers to travel 'intermodally' to places in Britain by train after an international flight to/from Heathrow.  This is estimated to reduce the annual number of flights in/out of Heathrow by about 66,500, which would in large measure compensate for the lack of a third runway.

It is very hard to predict what the future will be for Heathrow.  See also our discussion about a completely new London airport to replace Heathrow entirely.

Update :  In March 2010 a High Court decision found that the government's approval for a third runway was incorrect.  The implications of this ruling are not yet unclear - will the government have to start all over again in the planning and appeal process?  Will it even be capable of succeeding?  How  many more years of delay would this represent (it took six years to get the third runway finally approved in early 2009; now a year later that approval has been overruled, so one could anticipate perhaps another five years as a best case scenario)?  Or will the government just give up on growth at Heathrow entirely and look elsewhere for a solution to London's growing aviation traffic needs?

Final(?) Update :  In May 2010, the new Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition government in Britain announced - literally within 24 hours of forming a government - that it was canceling plans for a third runway at Heathrow.  It also said it would not approve additional runways at Gatwick or Stansted.  Exactly what this means in terms of London's ability to meet the growing demand of airlines and their passengers to fly in and out of London is as yet unclear, but it does not seem like a very positive development.

Will the on again, off again plans for a completely new airport be revived?  Or will the government instead add more high speed rail within Britain?  Both approaches are likely to take more than 10 years to translate into any sort of reality (not that a third runway was likely to eventuate in a much shorter timeframe either).

There's one more 'off the wall' possibility but it is unlikely to ever transpire.  That is making the RAF Northolt base, which is located about six miles to the north of Heathrow, into a satellite of Heathrow.

Connecting between Terminals

You can connect between terminals either 'airside' or 'landside' (ie on the secure or public side of the airport facility).  Shuttle buses operate on the airside, and note that although you're staying in the secure part of the airport, you're probably going to be rescreened back through security when getting to your alternate terminal.

On the landside there are several ways to transfer between terminals.  You can walk between terminals 1, 2 and 3, but terminals 4 and 5 are in two separate locations, way too far to walk.  Taking the Heathrow Express between terminals is a good way to do this transfer, and there's no charge for traveling on the train between terminals.

How long should you plan for the time it takes to connect between terminals?  That is a bit of a variable, depending on which terminals you are traveling between, and whether you have to wait to collect luggage or not, and go through Immigration or not, and get a new boarding pass/check in for the flight or not.

You should ask the airline you are connecting through Heathrow with for their 'minimum connecting time' and use this as a guide.  The connecting time varies depending on if you are on an international or domestic arriving flight, and traveling on out on an international or domestic flight, and if you're on a same airline connection, and so on and so on - there are a lot of variables, and that is why it is best to get the current number direct from the airline you're connecting with.

However, as a rule of thumb, we'd recommend allowing a minimum of one hour for the absolute best case scenario, and more likely two or more hours for a connection.

Connections into London

By road - car, bus, shuttle, taxi

For the longest time, the only way in to London from Heathrow was by bus or taxi, along the A4 road.  The former was inconvenient, the latter was expensive, and both were very slow.

In 1982, a side-spur from the M4 was added to allow people to travel directly in to the Terminal 1/2/3 part of the airport complex.  This made travel in and out of London slightly better, but terminals 4 and now 5 too are more remote from the freeways (or motorways as they are called in the UK).  Terminal 5 is closest to exit 14 on the M25 and has a convenient connection, but Terminal 4 isn't really close to anything.

The M25 opened in 1986 and makes it relatively easy (the M25 is infamous for its traffic congestion, almost from the day it first opened) to get from Heathrow to any of the motorways radiating out from London in all directions, with the M3, M4 and M1 being the closest.

If you wish to take a (shuttle) bus into central London, there is National Express' Hotel Hoppa service, connecting 21 hotels with the airport, and which charges only 5 per one way journey.

National Express also offers direct coach service between other parts of Britain and Heathrow, making for sometimes convenient and easy ways to get to/from wherever it is you're ultimately coming from/going to and LHR.

Another company offering shuttle transfers between Heathrow and just about all central London hotels is Dot2dot.  Prices range from 19 one way - this seems expensive, but when you consider that most of the other methods of transportation will need the extra cost and inconvenience of adding a taxi or Tube fare to the cost of getting in to central London, the price isn't too bad.

If you are taking a taxi from Heathrow, you'll find it easiest to just take a regular 'Black Cab' from one of the cab ranks outside the terminals.  But if you're returning back to the airport, you should consider using a 'Minicab' service which will probably cost about half what a Black Cab would cost.

Most hotels will arrange a Minicab for you, but they often add an extra charge onto the cab's fee, so if you are able to find a Minicab service in the area of your hotel and arrange with them directly, that may save you money.  On the other hand, detractors of this idea would point out that Minicabs are not as rigorously quality controlled as Black Cabs, and there is the risk you might get a bad car, a bad driver, or not be collected on time as arranged.

So, you pay your money and take your chances.  If you have friends in London, they may be able to recommend a cab service for you.  About the closest thing to an 'official' listing of Minicab companies is this one on the Transport for London website - at least, if you choose a Minicab operator from this list, you know you're dealing with an officially licensed company.

Otherwise, you can try negotiating with a Black Cab driver to see what the best deal he will do for you might be if he switches off the meter and charges you a flat fare.  The Black Cabs will sometimes be competitive, depending on the time of day and how badly they want your business.

I usually find the best way to do this is to chat with a cab driver while taking a taxi somewhere the previous day.  At a time like that, you are clearly able to negotiate from a position of strength, but when you're standing on the side of the road, in the rain, with your bags beside you, your ability to drive a deal is massively diminished.

Underground

In 1977, the Underground's Piccadilly Line was extended to the airport with one central station serving Terminals 1, 2 & 3.  When Terminal 4 was opened in 1986 on the other side of the airport, the underground line extended to there as well.

Another extension was added for Terminal 5 (in yet another part of the airport) in 2008.

It takes slightly less than an hour to travel by Tube from Heathrow to Piccadilly Circus in central London, and the trains have some extra room for suitcases in the carriages.

Train

Another major enhancement came in 1998, when a new connecting section of railroad track between the airport and the existing Great Western line to/from Paddington was completed.  This enabled nonstop train service, known as the Heathrow Express, between the airport and Paddington Station.  This has a journey time of only 15 minutes between the T1/2/3 station and Paddington, and slightly longer for the extended journey on to T4.  This has now been switched to for the new Terminal 5, with rather clumsy connections for passengers arriving/departing from Terminal 4.  A journey from Paddington to T4 can now take either 23 or 30 minutes, and a return journey from T4 to Paddington can be even slower.

A new train service was started in 2005.  Called Heathrow Connect, it has less frequent trains (two an hour instead of four with the Heathrow Express, and only one an hour on Sundays) and makes five stops along the route, resulting in a 25 minute rather than 15 minute journey time.

On the other hand, the journey cost is much lower.  A ticket costs 6.90 one way and 13.80 return (no discount for a return as compared to two one way tickets).  This compares with the Heathrow Express which costs 16.50 one way and 32 return.  Depending on the exchange rate, this is a saving of about $14 each way compared to the Heathrow Express, for a ten minute longer journey time and possibly a bit more waiting for a train.  If two of you are traveling together, you can save almost $28 - that's a great saving for ten minutes extra traveling time.

Whereas Heathrow Express starts/finishes at T5, Heathrow Connect starts/finishes at T4.  If your journey takes you to T4, perhaps Heathrow Connect is not only much less expensive, but it may be no slower than a Heathrow Express train.

Suggestion - when you know what time you'll be wanting to travel to the airport, check the Heathrow Connect website to see if there is a Heathrow Connect train you can take instead of the Heathrow Express, and also make a note of the times the trains depart Heathrow so you know your options when you fly in to Heathrow as well.

Connecting to other London airports

In addition to traveling in to London, then out of London to the other airport, with several changes of train/tube/bus/whatever along the way, there are some direct airport to airport services to make the process slightly simpler.

Gatwick :  National Express coaches travel between the two airports, up to six times an hour.  Journey time is about 75 minutes, depending on time of day and traffic conditions.

Stansted :  National Express coaches travel between the two airports, once or twice an hour, and take about 90 minutes for the journey.

Luton :  National Express coaches travel between the two airports, on an hourly service.  The journey is about 70 minutes.

London City Airport :  No direct service exists between LCY and LHR.  You'll need to 'mix and match' - perhaps train to Paddington, tube or taxi to Bank, then DLR (Docklands Light Railway) to LCY.

General

Heathrow has been owned by BAA (British Airports Authority) since 1987.

There are public showers, but only in Terminal 4, on both sides of security.

There is a Yotel in Terminal 4 - this rents micro-sized hotel rooms complete with showers, for rates from 25 for a four hour rental.

Left Luggage/Lockers

There are no luggage lockers in the airport due to security concerns, but you can use luggage storage rooms located in the public (rather than secure) areas in all five terminals to store your luggage for anywhere from a few hours up to as long as 90 days.  The service is operated by Excess Baggage Co.

All items stored are security screened.  Currently, there is a fee of 8 per item per day (or part thereof).

Useful Links

Heathrow Airport official website

Heathrow Express train service

Heathrow Connect train service


Part three of a seven part series on London's airports - please also visit

1.  About London's airports in General
2.  London's Best and Worst Airports and Why
3.  London Heathrow Airport LHR

4.  London Gatwick Airport LGW
5.  London Stansted Airport STN
6.  London Luton Airport LTN
7.  London City Airport LCY

 

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Originally published 3 Apr 2009, last update 02 Jul 2017

You may freely reproduce or distribute this article for noncommercial purposes as long as you give credit to me as original writer.

 
 
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