The good news and the bad news
are the same for Heathrow - it is London's biggest and busiest
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
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
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
The History of London Heathrow
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
Connections into London
By road - car, bus, shuttle,
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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.
National Express coaches travel between the two airports, once
or twice an hour, and take about 90 minutes for the journey.
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.
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
Terminal 4 - this rents micro-sized hotel rooms complete with
showers, for rates from £25 for a four hour rental.
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
All items stored are
security screened. Currently, there is a fee of £8 per
item per day (or part thereof).
Heathrow Airport official website
Heathrow Express train service
Heathrow Connect train service
Part three of a seven part
series on London's airports - please
About London's airports in General
2. London's Best
and Worst Airports and Why
3. London Heathrow Airport LHR
London Gatwick Airport LGW
London Stansted Airport STN
London Luton Airport LTN
London City Airport LCY
Related Articles, etc
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3 Apr 2009, last update
25 Aug 2018
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