The history of Heathrow

This month Heathrow turns 65. Chris Beanland discovers how a tiny west London airfield changed the way Britain travels

Iit was a big day for Heathrow on March 14 2008. And a typically British day of ups and downs. Terminal 5 was opened by the Queen. It cost £4.3bn and looked fantastic. But then it broke down; the computers crashed; the media mocked and travellers grimaced.

Today, though, Britain's most glossy, glassy gateway – home to British Airways and larger than all of Heathrow's other terminals put together – is a joy to use; giant and airy and unlike the airport's squashed, older buildings.

There is, of course, a good reason for that. If Heathrow was a person it would be pensioned off – the airport hits 65 this year.

London got its new airport in 1946. The site included the Vicar of Harmondsworth's back garden, bought for £15,000 by Richard Fairey in 1930 as a site for testing his planes.

The village of Heath Row was bulldozed in 1944, too. Plans were steamrollered through by plane-mad air minister and former WWI fighter ace Harold Balfour, who later admitted, in his 1973 memoirs, his bald deception in the ambitious plan. Balfour had persuaded Churchill's War Cabinet in the 1940s that an RAF base was needed on Hounslow Heath, in the full knowledge that admitting he wanted to push through plans for a post-war civilian airport would stall and possibly even kill the idea.

But push through he did. London Airport opened in March 1946 and took its first passengers in May, a delay even today's budget airlines might be embarrassed by.

In its first year, 60,000 people passed through London Airport. In 2010, 66 million did. In the early days no-one was in a hurry – it would take days to fly to Australia on an Avro Lancastrian, the first plane to leave the airport.

But then Britain's economy motored ahead and punters wanted to travel on sleek, speedy Comets and Caravelles. The futuristic Europa Terminal (which became Terminal 2) opened in 1955. In 1961 the long-distance Oceanic Terminal (now Terminal 3) arrived and the airport was the most glamorous address in the country.

A scrappy corner of Middlesex became the first glimpse visitors got of this land. "I think Heathrow is valuable because it's so intensely international in a country that still struggles with its global status," explains Swiss philosopher Alain de Botton, who spent a week as writer in residence at Terminal 5 in 2009. "So for anyone who doesn't feel quite at home in the UK, it's a very enchanting location – where one feels in touch with distant continents and other possibilities."

In the 1960s, even people who weren't travelling would climb to the rooftop gardens to marvel at multi-coloured aircraft from around the globe. "I used to visit as a schoolboy and spent most of my summer holidays plane-spotting with pals and walking around the terminals asking airlines for anything they might be giving away," laughs Alan Gallop, who worked as an agency reporter at the site and has written a book about Heathrow's history.

By 1966 London Airport had transformed into Heathrow Airport. But it was almost named Swintonfield, after Air Minister Lord Swinton, because the authorities feared that foreigners wouldn't be able to pronounce "Heathrow".

In the 1970s and 1980s, Heathrow mushroomed as travel became more affordable and our horizons widened. A Tube line extension was injected into the main terminal building in 1977 and a fourth terminal built in 1986.

Then the Tory government hived off the British Airports Authority, which ran Heathrow. Privatised BAA hit on an idea: build shops: lots of them. Views of the runway were obscured, but your choice of sandwich became immense. De Botton jokes: "Some people complain that Heathrow is a giant shopping mall with an airport attached. What's wrong with that?"

Heathrow grew into a major employer in the 1980s and 90s. With 70,000 staff it became more like a town – with its own local newspaper Skyport. Open skies agreements in the 2000s meant more overseas carriers could fly into LHR (as frequent flyers started to call it). Ticket prices came down and routes went up. "I love Heathrow," says de Botton, unabashed. "I particularly enjoy its slightly shambolic nature and the sheer number of 747s and A380s from far-flung places.

"Other airports are easier to use, Heathrow wins out by its diversity."

But look beyond the happy holidaymakers and Air Miles-laden businessmen and there's a dark side. Heathrow was not just an exit door for us, it was becoming an entry door for others. Anyone who's witnessed the stomach-churning sight of a failed asylum seeker being led on to a plane against their will, or wondered what the men in suits hanging around passport control were up to might be surprised by the scale of the border authorities' secretive work at Heathrow in the 2000s.

In 2001 the government built a detention centre next to the airport at Harmondsworth for foreigners awaiting deportation. It filled up. So in 2004, another immigration removal centre was opened next door at Colnbrook. With its list of exotic and sometimes troubled destinations, Heathrow is where many asylum seekers arrive – but also, more tragically, it is where many – often vulnerable – people are ejected from Britain. Petrified about what might happen to them, some detainees took drastic decisions: Nigerian asylum seeker Kenny Peter threw himself to his death from a balcony at Colnbrook in 2004. At Harmondsworth, Sergey Barnuyck, a Ukrainian, hanged himself in 2004, while Bereket Yohannes – an Eritrean asylum seeker – hanged himself in 2006.

Others have died at Heathrow: seven fatal plane crashes killed 219 people between 1948 and the last fatal crash when a British European Airways plane which ploughed into a field in Staines in 1972.

In 2006 BAA was sold to Spanish construction behemoth Ferrovial. The ire of environmentalists fell upon the airport's new owners when, in August 2007, a climate camp was held on the site of the proposed third runway at nearby Sipson – the runway proposal was later canned.

Groups like Plane Stupid launched sporadic anti-aviation protests, including dressing as Edwardians and hosting a tea party.

"How big is your carbon footprint this year?" was heard at dinner tables. People became increasingly aware of the environmental cost of flying – some started taking the Eurostar instead. Those living near the runways knew the price all too well – it was the cost of the double glazing they needed to sleep.

In the post-9/11 world the viewing galleries were closed, the place was on virtual lockdown – with armed police, and even occasionally the Army, on guard against acts of terrorism.

Despite the eventual success of the Richard Rogers-designed T5, it seemed as if the airport as a whole was losing its lustre. Flyers sighed at the constant building work; and because it operated at full capacity, it took just a small problem to seize up the whole Heathrow machine. In 2010, the airport suffered the indignity of not being able to clear the snow off its runways – and ground to a halt.

"An airport serving a great city like London without proper snow clearing vehicles?" says Gallop, "yet, airlines would rather be at Heathrow than any other London airport."

The future for the world's fourth busiest airport looks as transient as its past. Terminals 1 and 2 – the ropiest ones – are being replaced with a swish new hub for the five airlines of the Star Alliance. But will the third runway ever be built? And will Heathrow get a station on the planned high-speed rail line to Birmingham? Or will we eventually cover the site in bungalows and build a new airport in the Thames?

"The Thames Estuary idea is a non-starter," says Gallop. "The high-speed rail connection will happen – eventually. The third runway issue has been put onto the back burner. But BAA will resurrect the idea."

With 180 routes, Heathrow is still our portal to the world. A stirring light sculpture by artists Langlands & Bell outside Terminal 5 illuminates – literally – today's possibilities. The three letter airport codes of cities served flash up in a dizzying sequence: SYD, HKG, LAX... you want to visit them all. Heathrow has more – and more exciting – destinations than any other British airport. It offers the thrill of journeys to incredible lands; of reuniting with long-lost loved ones; of starting a new life. It is central to our economic well-being and it still fizzes: travel gets your blood pumping. De Botton offers his take: "What makes our world distinctive is its emphasis on breaking down the local and its ability to dissolve space through technology. So Heathrow will forever be an icon of this aspect of our modernity." More than that, Heathrow is also a microcosm of modern Britain's failures and successes.

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