FR0812-Heathrow airportHeathrow faces big capacity problems

A visit to the 87 metre high control tower at London Heathrow, which was opened in April 2007, illustrates all the problems of Europe's biggest airport. The air traffic controllers here process over 477,000 flights per year, thus making almost full use of the legal maximum of 480,000 flights movements a year.

By Andreas Spaeth

"Here at Heathrow, we don't experience any ups and downs over the day, we run at full capacity all day long," said Patrick Horwood, spokesperson for National Air Traffic Services Ltd (NATS), during a visit from FLUG REVUE. Apparently airlines pay up to 30 million euros on the grey market for a pair of slots at favourable times in Heathrow.

Theoretically Heathrow has been open to American airlines since the Open Skies agreement between the USA and the EU entered into force at the end of March 2008, but without a lot of money or a slot swap within the alliances, nothing can happen. Despite this, all the US giants – US Airways, Delta Air Lines, Continental and Northwest – which for decades had touted for admission to Heathrow in vain, have been represented there since the spring of 2008.

The so-called "Heathrow four", that is, the only four airlines which had previously been allowed to operate transatlantic flights under the restrictive Bermuda II agreement, currently have 48.1 percent of the valuable landing rights here. The top dog, British Airways (BA) has the lion's share with 41.1 percent, then comes Virgin with 2.9 percent, followed by American Airlines with 2.4 percent and United with 1.7 percent. bmi, which is also based here, is generously represented with 11 percent, making it attractive as a prospective takeover for Lufthansa. Lufthansa itself has 4.3 percent of the slots, Aer Lingus 3.3 percent, and the remaining 33.3 percent is spread over 85 other airlines which between them fly from Heathrow to 187 destinations all over the world. The largest number of passengers, 2.8 million in 2007, fly to New York JFK, followed by Dublin with 1.9 million passengers.

It sounds like a truly international airport, and indeed it is. Whereas Atlanta and Chicago, which are above Heathrow in the global rankings, enjoy more passengers than Heathrow, no other airport in the world handles more international passengers. Nevertheless the government and the business community in London are slowly getting nervous because they see Great Britain threatening to be left behind as a business location, compared with other European metropolises and their hubs, which continue to expand.

They are particularly envious of Paris CDG across the English Channel, which is only 76% utilised with its four runways and in 2010 will handle a total of 710,000 flight movements. It is feared that in just two years' time the French could have overtaken London. The trend is already noticeable: in the 12 months to September 2007, traffic rose by 5.8 percent in CDG whereas in Heathrow it shrank by 0.4 percent. Again Frankfurt airport currently utilises only three-quarters of its available capacity, will be able to handle 660,000 movements in two years' time, and is set to acquire a fourth runway over the next few years. Frankfurt already offers more destinations than Heathrow – 265 instead of 187.

All the key players in air transport in the United Kingdom agree that the only solution is to build a third runway. Looking out from the Tower, it is obvious where this could go: one and a half to two kilometres to the north of the present 3.9 km long north runway 09L/27R. However, the proposal currently under discussion, would be for new runway only 2,500 metres long which would require an entire community, the village of Sipson with over 700 houses, a church and cemetery, to disappear.

"We expect the government to decide about the construction of the new runway by the beginning of 2009 and, if appropriate, for the formal public planning enquiry to get under way shortly afterwards. Entry into service in 2020 would then be realistic," says Mark Murphy on behalf of airport operator BAA. British Airways CEO Willie Walsh also talks plainly. "The expansion is critical to BA and all the other airlines which operate here. Heathrow is already falling behind. It is a struggle to make do with the two runways that were already here when the airport opened in 1946, whereas Amsterdam has five runways and Paris CDG and Madrid have four."

If the new runway is not approved, London's new mayor, Boris Johnson, recently proposed building a 24-hour airport on an island in the Thames estuary which would have enough space for six runways and could be open by 2014. Heathrow is "a planning mistake of the Sixties". Willie Walsh thinks this is a ridiculous idea. "It would cost up to 50 billion euros which no one could afford. It is complete nonsense and might have made sense 30 years ago, but today such ideas are just a distraction from the tough decisions that have to be made in Heathrow."

One option would be to increase the amount of capacity available without building an extra runway. This would require the model of alternating runway usage practised at present to be replaced by "mixed mode" usage.

"In theory we use the present system voluntarily, but for noise control reasons we have no other option," explains Mark Murphy, former managing director of the airport and now director of the new Terminal 5. Because westerly winds prevail in London, comprising 80 percent of the winds, and the noise emissions on take-off are a lot greater than on the approach, aircraft take off in the direction of the more thinly populated west, whereas the approaches from the east have to fly directly across the city centre. Normally, from the start of operations at six o'clock in the morning to about 3pm incoming flights land on one of the two runways 27L and 27R, whereas the other runway is reserved for take-offs. At 3pm, there is a switch so that the distribution of noise between the two runways is more even.

Yet this system is less efficient than a mixed-use system where aircraft take off and land on both runways. "We are already lobbying for the mixed mode system," says Mark Murphy of the BAA. "That is the only solution in the short-term and would increase capacity by twelve percent," Willie Walsh confirms. According to figures supplied by the Ministry of Transport, flexible use of the two runways would permit another 60,000 flight movements per year, giving a total of 540,000 flight movements per year by 2015. On the other hand, with a third runway, according to the Ministry, 702,000 movements could be handled by 2020.

The view from the Tower designed by award-winning architect Richard Rogers, which the new Terminal 5 made necessary to enable the air traffic controllers to see all the aprons and runways, reveals another fundamental problem of Heathrow: the completely muddled hodgepodge of buildings in the central area. What was originally known as the Europa Building (today Terminal 2) was opened by  Queen Elizabeth II in 1955. This was followed in 1961 by the Oceanic Terminal (today Terminal 3) and finally in 1968 by Terminal 1. In that year Heathrow was handling 14 million passengers per year. At that time London's central airport had six shorter runways which encircled the central area, in which the terminals were located, in the form of a star of David.

This proved a real hindrance to the expansion which soon became necessary, as did also the sole access via the road tunnel under the northern runway which to this day is renowned for being congested. It was not until 1986 when Terminal 4 was built to the south of the south runway that the first terminal outside the tight central area was opened, linked by the cargo tunnel which already existed there. Another 22 years went by before the new Terminal 5, built exclusively for BA, could be opened in the west of the airport on the site of a former sewage treatment plant on 27 March 2008. BA's move to its new home turned into a week-long disaster thanks to breakdowns in the baggage handling system and inadequate staff preparation, coming on top of years of virtually exclusively negative headlines in the media.

Nowhere in Europe are so many flights delayed, nowhere do so many bags get lost, at no other capital city airport do disasters afflict the infrastructure and operational flows as often. Originally designed for only 45 million passengers yet having seen almost 68 million people forced through its four terminals in 2007, London's main airport regularly tops the polls when it comes to passenger nominations of the most unpopular airport in the world.

"Heathrow is not a pleasant place to travel to," concedes even Steve Ridgeway, CEO of the second biggest British airline, Virgin Atlantic Airways, which is also based here. "We spend millions on flat beds onboard and other innovations, and then our passengers have awful experiences at our home airport, and we as an airline have to take the rap for it."

But today BA and their over 33 million passengers per year are now a lot better off in Terminal 5 than the customers of all the other airlines, who will have to make do with the old, only partly renovated buildings in Heathrow for a bit longer. Altogether seven billion euros were invested in the five-storey new Terminal 5 and the associated traffic links, €500 million of which came from lessee BA. With an area the size of Hyde Park, the building is one of the largest of its kind in Europe. The planning work began back in 1989. Four years later the planning application was submitted, and now finally the quantum leap which is supposed to restore Heathrow's reputation has been achieved. For the first time BA is able to handle over 90% of its flights under a single roof.

Terminal 5 is 40 metres high, 396 metres long, encased by 30,000 square metres of glass and, once the second satellite T5C opens at the end of 2010, will on its own be able to handle up to 35 million passengers per year. Passengers are greeted by a big, light departure hall spanned by an arched ceiling through which the daylight streams. What is unusual is less one's first impression of the building from the outside than the novel handling processes. BA estimates that about 80 percent of all passengers will have checked in independently either on the Internet before arriving at the airport or once in the terminal at one of the 96 check-in machines (instead of the previous 25) before taking their bags to one of the 96 drop-off counters. "The system is designed to avoid waiting in queues, and there will normally be a maximum of one person queuing in front of one," promises Jonathon Counsell, project manager at BA. Anyone who prefers to be checked in by a human being has this option available as well.

Passengers who have dropped off their bags or are travelling with only hand luggage can proceed directly to one of the 21 security gates (previously 10). There are 14 of these in the north, close to the exit points from the subterranean station of the extended Heathrow express line and the Underground, and seven in the south. "In 95% of cases it should take less than five minutes from stepping inside the terminal, whereas in the old terminals it took 40 minutes," said Counsell prior to the opening.

But there is a new draconian hurdle that applies only to Terminal 5: any passengers arriving at the security gate less than 35 minutes before the planned departure of their aircraft are no longer admitted. BA is using this weapon as a means of improving departure punctuality. Since the move, 80 percent of BA's flights have departed on time. Despite this, Heathrow is still the worst offender in Europe when it comes to delays: in the first quarter of 2008 44.1 percent of all departures were more than 15 minutes late. "But that is not because of the terminal capacity, we have enough of that, rather it is the limitations of the runways," says terminal director Murphy.

In Terminal 5 the security gates are a pleasant experience. Thanks to new high-tech equipment, passengers do not have to take off either their shoes or their belts and even laptops do not have to be unpacked. The maximum distance to the passenger gate is now five minutes by foot, or a 45 second ride on a subterranean unmanned shuttle if the flight is departing from the satellite building on the apron, known as Terminal 5B. Frequent flyers of BA or oneworld have six lounges available to them, the biggest complex of its kind in the world, as BA likes to boast. Altogether 2,500 passengers, a quarter more than up to now, can use the posh waiting rooms. Meanwhile the other airlines in Heathrow are feeling neglected by operator BAA. Their passengers, including Lufthansa's customers, face further stopgap solutions for some time to come due to further delays in the rebuilding and demolition of the old Terminal 2 and the Queen's Building in 2009. The giant new Terminal Heathrow East for 30 million passengers per year is due to open in time for the London Olympic Games in 2012, replacing the present Terminals 1 and 2. With regard to the design of the new building, the airport operators have gone for as many gate positions for aircraft as possible on strung-out terminal fingers, which will mean long distances from the main building. But unlike in T5, there will be no shuttle service to transport passengers, only moving walkways. Critics argue that although this may be an efficient way of handling traffic peaks such as those expected during the few weeks of the Olympics, it is not sensible for the huge number of transfer passengers who will have to be handled here in years to come.

Meanwhile, with the new Pier 6 in Terminal 3, Heathrow did manage to get itself ready to handle the A380 in time. Since 18 March 2008, Singapore Airlines has been landing in London with the A380 every day, initially once a day and since 20 September twice a day. Emirates will follow suit at the end of the year and Qantas from February. This will soon make London the biggest A380 hub in the world, something which is completely logical: how fitting that here, where there is no space on the ground, the giant aircraft should be able to promote more efficient use of valuable resources such as slots and passenger gates!

From FLUG REVUE 12/2008

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