The Horrors of Heathrow

The Editors

Ian Gilmour on the horrors of Heathrow, the last time they were proposing to expand the airport (LRB, 19 March 1998):

Heathrow is the worst-sited major airport in the world. Probably no other country would be crazy enough to place its principal airport at a spot which, when the prevailing wind is blowing, requires all aircraft coming in to land to fly first over its capital, one of the world’s most heavily populated cities. And I am pretty sure that if any other country had committed such a blunder, it would not magnify it by building another airport next door to the original mistake. Yet that is what the privatised BAA, in its selfless wisdom, is now proposing.

The airport was conceived in deceit – and nurtured by subterfuge. It would never have been built had not one or two ministers and several civil servants tricked the War Cabinet into believing that it was needed for the RAF. Even though he believed it was intended for that purpose, Winston Churchill thought it was a misuse of resources to start it in 1944; but he had more important things to think about and eventually consented. Had the Air Ministry told the truth, they would not have been able to proceed with their pet scheme. They could not have turned householders out of their homes by compulsory purchase, or wrecked prime agricultural land. There would have had to be a public inquiry, which would have exposed their project as the folly it was. Since then, the behaviour of our masters has not greatly improved.


  • 25 October 2016 at 6:15pm
    streetsj says:
    I remember reading the Gilmour piece when it came out. There seem to have been so many opportunities in the past 70 years to resite London's main airport and none has happened. Error has been compounded on error.
    I'm slightly surprised that so little has been made of the commitment made when T5 was approved that there would be no further expansion - but then it seems no one thought it meant anything anyway.
    Some large projects are self evidently good ideas: M25; Channel Tunnel; Crossrail etc etc (possibly even some further north). And some are not: Hinckley; HS2; Heathrow and anything else beginning with "H".

  • 26 October 2016 at 8:20am
    IPFreely says:
    I spent a couple of hours at Heath Row on Saturday, waiting for my flight home. Terminal 5 is a vast hangar of a place, built as if they wanted to back in a couple of Jumbos if it rains. No thought seems to have been given to passenger flow, but there was a thing that looked like a game console with a button asking me to express my satisfaction with 'today's security experience'. As if they care. The boarding process was a shambles and we were shuffled on to buses to drive out in the beyond to the aircraft. I have aways disliked Heath Row and my experience of the 'catering facilities' simply strengthened my general dislike of air travel especially to Heath Row.
    Now that I have read your piece I feel more justified in my feelings about the place.

  • 26 October 2016 at 10:29am
    CasaCaliente says:
    "Heathrow is the worst-sited major airport in the world."
    Not while Narita is still in existence, it isn't. 80 minutes to Tokyo by express train. But at least in Japan there's a veneer of customer service for all classes of traveller. (To the moment you check in at lower than Business class with a European or American carrier anyway). At Heathrow, the whole experience seems designed to degrade the ordinary passenger in the hope that some of them will pay for a higher class of service the next time round.

  • 29 October 2016 at 9:18am
    IPFreely says:
    Germany has at least three mega-projects for which the cash-flow has shrunk to a dribble. All major projects always cost far more than budgeted, preferably three times as much, but the new (sic) Berlin airport, which was too small before it was even started is so far behind schedule that experts say it would be cheaper (!) to abandon the whole project and start again. Everything possible has gone wrong. First the fire alarm system was inadequate, then the emergency exits were too few, the costs spiralling month by month. It costs one million Euros a month just for upkeep. The Stuttgart Tunnel is another monster that has grown out of hand. The Elbe Philharmonie in Hamburg was at least mainly financed by private investment but that will cost three times the original estimate.