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Heathrow's history

In 1930, British aero engineer and aircraft builder Richard Fairey paid the Vicar of Harmondsworth £15,000 for a 150-acre plot to build a private airport to assemble and test aircraft. Complete with a single grass runway and a handful of hastily erected buildings, Fairey’s Great West Aerodrome was the humble precursor to the world’s busiest international airport, Heathrow.

During World War II the government requisitioned land in and around the ancient agricultural village of Heath Row, including Fairey’s Great West Aerodrome, to build RAF Heston, a base for long-range troop-carrying aircraft bound for the Far East. An RAF-type control tower was constructed, and a ‘Star of David’ pattern of runways laid, the longest of which was 2,743 metres long and 91 metres wide.

Work demolishing Heath Row and clearing land for the runways started in 1944. However, by the time the war had ended the RAF no longer needed another aerodrome and it was officially handed over to the Air Ministry as London’s new civil airport on 1 January 1946. The first aircraft to take off from Heathrow was a converted Lancaster bomber called Starlight that flew to Buenos Aires.

The early passenger terminals were ex‑military marquees which formed a tented village along the Bath Road. The terminals were primitive but comfortable, equipped with floral-patterned armchairs, settees and small tables containing vases of fresh flowers. To reach aircraft parked on the apron, passengers walked over wooden duckboards to protect their footwear from the muddy airfield. There was no heating in the marquees, which meant that during winter it could be bitterly cold, but in summer when the sun shone, the marquee walls were removed to allow a cool breeze to blow through.

By the close of Heathrow’s first operational year, 63,000 passengers had travelled through London’s new airport.

The first airfield on the site of the current Heathrow was the Great West Aerodrome, built in 1929 by Fairey Aviation. Redevelopment of the area began in 1944, however the end of World War II meant it was surplus to the Royal Air Force’s requirements, and instead was designated to become a civil airport by the UK Government. The new airport opened on 25 March 1946, initially as London Airport, becoming Heathrow in 1966.

The name Heathrow is named after the ancient hamlet Heath Row, upon where the airport is now built. The settlement, which was largely an agricultural area, was demolished fully in 1944 to make way for the development of the airfield.  

Following the end of the Second World War, it was realised that air travel was going to become a growing commodity. London’s previous biggest airport, Croydon Aerodrome, was becoming increasingly populated, and the site of the Great West Aerodrome was chosen as London’s designated airport.

Our company, Heathrow Airport Holdings Limited (formerly BAA) owns and runs London Heathrow Airport.

Heathrow Airport Holdings Limited is in turn owned by FGP Topco Limited, a consortium owed and led by the infrastructure specialist Ferrovial S.A. (25.00%), Qatar Investment Authority (20.00%), Caisse de depot et placement de Quebec (CDPQ) (12.62%), GIC (11.20%), Alinda Capital Partners of the United States (11.18%), China Investment Corportation (10.00%) and Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS) (10.00%).

About the airport

Heathrow has two runways. The Northern Runway is designated 09L/27R, while the Southern Runway is designated 09R/27L.

Of Heathrow’s two runways, the Northern Runway is 3,902 metres long, and 50 metres wide, making it the longest active runway in the United Kingdom. The Southern Runway, meanwhile, is 3,658 metres long, and 50 metres wide.

Heathrow’s Air Traffic Control Tower is 87 metres (285 feet) tall and is located close to the geographic centre of the airfield, offering unobstructed, 360-degree views. The latest building opened in February 2007, ahead of the opening of Terminal 5.

Heathrow’s airfield boundaries measure at 1,227 hectares (12,270,000 square metres). The biggest Terminal building at Heathrow is Terminal 5, measuring 353,000 square metres. 

Yes, Heathrow is visible from space! In 2000, in a picture taken of London from space by NASA, Heathrow’s two runways and bright lights are clearly visible to the West of London. 

Heathrow currently has four terminal buildings, spread out over the footprint of the airfield. Terminals 2 and 3 form the central terminal area, while Terminal 4 is on the southern perimeter road. Terminal 5 is located at the western end of the airport and is home to most of British Airways’ operations.

Who does what at Heathrow?

Running airports is a complex business and we need to work in partnership with many other organisations to deliver a high-quality service.

Responsible for checking passengers in, delivering hold baggage to its final destination, cargo, providing and fuelling aircraft, boarding passengers, passenger safety and on-board catering.

Controls all flight paths and aircraft routes at UK airports, and regulates airlines, airports and NATS air traffic services. The CAA also sets airport charges at the London airports.

Visit the CAA website

ACL is the appointed Coordinator for London Heathrow airport under EC Regulation 95/93. In line with the regulation ACL coordinates the airport in a neutral, non-discriminatory and transparent way and is the sole person responsible for the allocation of slots at the airport. A slot allocated by the Coordinator is a permission to use all the airport infrastructure (i.e. runway, aircraft parking stands and terminals).

Visit the ACL website

Individual businesses provide catering, shopping, car hire, car parking and banking services.

Controls the import and export of goods, and prevents illegal activities such as drugs, tobacco and alcohol trafficking and trades in endangered species and child pornography.

Visit the HM Revenue & Customs website

Responsible for passport control and deciding who can enter the country. This service also deals with any deportation or asylum issues.

Visit the UK Border Agency website

Looks after air traffic control and management, ensuring aircraft flying in UK airspace and over the eastern part of the North Atlantic are safely separated.

Visit the NATS website

Many independently run bus, coach, taxi and rail companies provide connections to and from our airports.

Operations at Heathrow

While there is no formal ban on night flights at Heathrow, the government has imposed restrictions on them since the 1960s. No more than 5,800 night-time take-offs or landings can happen between the hours of 23:30 and 06:00 each year. Around 80% of these happen between 04:30 and 06:00, with an average of 16 aircraft arriving each day between these hours. Heathrow also has a voluntary ban in place that prevents flights scheduled between these hours from landing before 04:30, while there are also no departures scheduled between 23:00 and 06:00.

We understand that there's a fine balance between the economic benefits of early morning flights and the disruption it can cause to local residents. The number of flights we are able to operate is strictly controlled by the Department for Transport.

Heathrow's statistics

On average in 2022 so far, there have been over 31,000 movements a month.

On average in 2022 so far, more than 5 million passengers have used the airport each month. 

Heathrow’s location

Heathrow is around 15 miles from Central London, and there are many ways of travelling between the two. 

Heathrow sits in the historic county of Middlesex, whilst also being part of the Ceremonial County of Greater London too.

Sustainability at Heathrow

We think the best way to do this is through emissions trading. Companies have limits set on their overall emissions; if they exceed their limit they need to buy surplus from other companies. Industries which cut their emissions can sell their surplus on.

Passengers already pay Air Passenger Duty, which is a straightforward tax designed to reduce demand. But it does little to reduce emissions or encourage aviation companies to adopt more sustainable practices. Emissions trading offers the best solution.

Retail at Heathrow

Retail is a key part of our business activities. The money we make from retail subsidises the landing fees we charge to airlines. In turn, this has created a thriving airline business and gives passengers more choice.

The biggest constraints on the number of flights are runway space and aircraft parking bays. The number of shops has little impact on the number of flights running.

Other questions about Heathrow

We comply with strict regulations set by the Department for Transport governing many aspects of our operation. The price we charge airlines is set by the Civil Aviation Authority.

Regional airports will continue to grow in coming years, offering more choice to more people. This is good for the economy, as it spreads the wealth generated by airports around the country.

Security is our number one priority and our systems and staff are among the best in the world. Of course, we can't say that air travel is 100% risk-free but we are working together with many organisations to keep air travel safe. There's a huge amount of work that goes on behind the scenes to keep everyone safe at all times. 

Heathrow's Photo Library and Video Library feature airport and aviation photography and video which is available for purchase for a negotiated fee.

Airport tax is called Air Passenger Duty (APD) and is imposed on passengers by the government. Heathrow is not involved in levying or collecting this tax. It is paid when passengers book their ticket with the airline, and collected by the Government once the journey has taken place.

There are different rates of APD depending on the ticket types and journey type (EU/non-EU). For further information see the HM Revenue and Customs website. Taxes and charges are explained by the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) website.

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