Click on image to open a larger map of the central London
area and where the airport ground transport services
This second map - a zoomed
in closeup of central London - shows
where the main train or tube services to/from each airport
originate/terminate in the central London area.
From top to bottom,
left to right, you can see Luton (blue - St Pancras Station),
Heathrow (pink - Paddington Station, and also the Piccadilly
Underground line throughout the center of the city), London
City (yellow - Bank Underground station from the Docklands
Light Rail and connections on the underground to many other
stations), Stansted (green - Liverpool St Station) and
Gatwick (purple, Victoria Station, and also rail service to
St Pancras, the blue marker).
London's Heathrow Airport is an
iconic symbol of the city itself, and so much so that airlines
pay tens of millions of dollars to get a single 'slot' - the
rights to operate a single daily flight in and out of Heathrow.
But there are four other
airports around London, and while Heathrow is the best known, it
is not necessarily the 'best' airport in all respects.
Of course, your choice of
airport is largely influenced by your choice of airline, and so
in part the purpose of this article series is to help you understand
the implications of choosing an airline that flies to a
This first article is general
background type information about the airports which you may or
may not find interesting.
The History of London's
The entrance to Croydon Airport (Aerodrome) when it opened in
The original London airport
is no longer in existence. After World War 1 it was
decided to create an 'Air Port of London' - an airport with
customs facilities to handle international flights, and this
designation was bestowed upon a newly created airport that
amalgamated two First World War airfields that were located
almost next to each other into one single and larger airport.
This became known as Croydon
Airport, which opened on 29 March, 1920. It was located
south of London, about 15 miles north of Gatwick (and therefore,
closer to the center of London).
After steady growth in the
1920s and 1930s, it was closed to civilian traffic immediately
prior to WW2 and became an RAF fighter station, playing a key
role in the Battle of Britain.
Croydon was returned to
civilian use by the
RAF in 1946, but it was felt to be no longer adequate for newer
passenger planes, and so in 1946 Heathrow was designated as London's
Croydon itself continued as
a secondary airport until 1959, with its last flight taking
place on 30 September that year.
Basic Airport Facts and Figures
As can be seen, there is a
huge difference in terms of airport traffic between the five
The benefit of the larger
number of flights at Heathrow in particular is that there is
more likelihood of convenient connecting flights if your travels
to London are for a connection rather than as a destination in
2008 Annual Flights
2008 Annual Passengers
Many more tables of comparative data are offered in the second
part of this series -
London's Best and Worst Airports and Why.
A point of controversy for
some years has been the somewhat monopolistic position enjoyed
by BAA (British Airports Authority). This was originally a
government organization, and then in 1987 was privatized and
since 2006 has been a Spanish company, owned by Ferrovial.
BAA owns the three largest of London's
airports - Heathrow, Gatwick and Stansted. As the table
above shows, in 2008 BAA's three airports handled 90% of the
passengers flying in/out of London.
monopoly on airport services by BAA, combined with unhappiness
at the service levels experienced by passengers and airlines,
has lead to calls for BAA to sell one of its London airports to
make the marketplace more competitive, and as a result, in late
2008 it commenced what is a strangely lengthy process of selling Gatwick airport.
In March 2009 the British
Competition Commission announced that BAA would have to divest
itself not just of Gatwick, but also Stansted plus either
Edinburgh or Glasgow (managing both the two largest airports in
Scotland was felt to create another monopoly position in that
region too). This would leave BAA owning only one
of the London airports, instead of the three largest London
airports as it currently does.
Assuming that two different
companies buy Gatwick and Stansted (or perhaps even if they end
up under common ownership) it is expected that this increased
competition may appreciably decrease airport landing and related
fees while improving passenger services.
The Future of London's
Growth at Heathrow
Heathrow desperately needs
to add to its capacity to accept additional flights to respond
to the pent up demand by airlines to fly in/out of Heathrow.
As an example of this demand, in 2008 Continental purchased four
'slots' (the rights for a daily landing and takeoff) for £105
million (at the time, equivalent to $209 million, ie, $52
million per slot).
In 2003 it was proposed by the UK government that a third runway
be added to the existing two at Heathrow. (As a historical
aside, Heathrow at one time had six runways, so it could be
argued that an 'increase' up to three runways now isn't really
an increase at all.)
Since that time the proposal
has been delayed and deferred, with local residents and
environmental groups all aggressively opposed to any more
flights going to Heathrow (in the case of local residents) or to
anywhere at all (environmental groups).
Most recently, the
government promised to make a decision on the matter by the end
of 2008, but that has been again delayed. Eventually, in
late January, the government announced its approval for a third
runway, an approval that was narrowly won, with dissent being
registered not only by the opposition Conservative party but
also by some prominent members of the ruling Labour party too.
It seems curious that the
national government of Britain is involved in this process at
all (and even more curious that the right wing Conservative
party should be opposed to this expansion of private enterprise
whereas the left wing Labour party is supporting it). Even
though the government has now approved the third runway, this
will merely be 'the end of the beginning' rather than 'the
beginning of the end' of the process, with an avalanche of
ongoing objections and delaying tactics almost guaranteed from
the groups opposing the runway.
When would a third runway
likely be completed and operational? You might think it to
be a fairly simple matter to just quickly grade the underlying
surface to make it level, then to asphalt or concrete it, add a
few connecting taxi-ways, and - hey presto, almost instant third
Well, if you think that,
you'd be spectacularly wrong. Current planning (which
assumed a go-ahead in 2008) is for the runway to open in 2020 -
a twelve year period, subsequent to government approval (and
five years after the runway was first proposed), to complete any
preliminary measures and actually install the runway.
With this extra runway, and
with an also proposed new (sixth) terminal, Heathrow's capacity
would expand to about 115 million passengers a year, up from its
present operating level of about 67 million passengers a year,
which is in turn considerably more than its designed capacity
(although one could argue that if it is handling 67 million
passengers, who really cares about a theoretical 'design'
Update May 10 :
The new Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition government in
Britain has announced that it is canceling plans for a third
runway at Heathrow. It has also said that it will not
allow extra runways at Gatwick or Stansted. It has not
announced what it thinks the appropriate alternative solution to
London's continuing need for more air capacity.
Growth at London's other airports
Gatwick had sought a
second runway (it actually has two runways at present, but they
are too close to each other to be used concurrently, so it only
has one effective runway) but in the face of local opposition,
BAA - the company then owning LHR, LGW and STN - decided to
concentrate its growth advocacy on LHR and STN. Now that
LGW is up for sale, who knows what its new owners might not seek
(and in May 2010 the new British government said it would oppose
an extra runway at Gatwick).
Stansted also wishes to add
another runway, and says that with a second runway, it would be
capable of handling as many - or more - passengers as can
Heathrow. At present, however, the airport's ability to
get its extra runway approved is far from certain, and even if
it were to be approved, the lead times involved in the process
could be lengthy.
Plus, with the airport about
to be sold, it is possible (unlikely, but possible) its new
owners might no longer wish to develop a second runway (and in
May 2010 the new British government said it would oppose an
extra runway at Stansted).
Luton had mooted plans for a
second full-length runway and a new terminal in 2004.
These predictably aroused opposition from local and
environmental groups, and in 2007 the airport said it had
cancelled its plans for any growth in the foreseeable future due
to financial reasons.
London City airport can't
really add extra runways due to its landlocked (river locked) location, but is
seeking permission to increase its annual flight cap up to
120,000 a year, and with some ground facilities expansion,
believes it can grow to handle up to 8 million passengers a year
Another constraint on growth
It is sometimes easy to
forget that the skies are not limitless in size. With
current air traffic control technology, and the required
separation between planes, the air space over London is close to
fully utilized by the present volume of planes already flying in
and out of the London airports.
What this means is that all
of London's airports can't all expand as they wish, because
there'd be no airspace to handle the increased number of flights
(at least with present separation guidelines).
An Extra London Airport (or Heathrow
As London has grown,
Heathrow has transitioned from being relatively remote and away
from dense population areas to now being surrounded by
This makes the 'opportunity
cost' of Heathrow considerably higher - ie, the land is arguably
no longer being used for a 'best use' purpose, and the people
around Heathrow are virulently opposed to any further growth at
the airport and would love to get rid of it entirely.
The flight paths in/out of
Heathrow also require planes to be low over much of central
London, extending the noise 'signature' further.
From time to time, plans are
mooted for an entirely new airport, not to supplement Heathrow
but to replace it. All the other four main airports around
London have varying degrees of growth constraint associated with
them, and the thinking is to custom build a completely new
airport in a less densely populated area.
The first suggestion was way
back in 1971, for an airport at Maplin Sands, just north of
Southend-on-Sea at the mouth of the Thames. This was
actually approved in 1973, but then cancelled in 1974 subsequent
to the economic downturn that occurred in 1973/74. Other
suggestions have been put forward, although none have progressed
as far as the Maplin Sands proposal.
Studies have even suggested
that a complete new Heathrow replacement would cost less than
merely adding a third runway to Heathrow. If one also
factors in the revenue that could be generated by selling the
2,500 acres of prime land currently occupied by Heathrow, it
would seem a financial no-brainer to close Heathrow and create a
new major airport somewhere else.
Unfortunately (?) no-one
wants any airport anywhere close to them, which makes the
process of creating a new airport very difficult. And the
issues of closing Heathrow are more complex than they first seem
- there's a lot of related business infrastructure around
Heathrow that would then need to close and move as well.
Plus, Heathrow, for all its faults, is very close and convenient
to central downtown London, and - by definition - any
replacement airport would be considerably further away.
This also points to another cost - the cost of developing rail
and road links to any new airport.
The new (2008) Mayor of
London, Boris Johnson, has expressed support for an alternate to
Heathrow, and there is a new feasibility study looking at an
airport located on or adjacent to (ie on reclaimed land) the
Isle of Sheppey, which is on the south bank of the entrance to
the Thames, and about 50 - 55 miles from downtown London.
Will anything happen to this
proposal - particularly now that the third runway at Heathrow
has been approved? The possible outcome is anyone's guess
at this stage, with the only thing certain being that nothing
will be certain for many years, and even if a new airport is to
be developed, it would likely be 10 - 15 years before it started
A Completely Different
The environmental lobby in
Britain is very strong - much more so than in the US, and they
overwhelmingly oppose any type of increase in air traffic, due
to what they see as harmful impacts on the environment.
As an alternative concept to
another airport, these groups (and others too) have proposed
building a high speed rail connection between Heathrow and the
main rail lines that run north of London. They say that if
a traveler could travel within Britain via high speed rail, this
would eliminate the need for many of the shorter connecting
flights within Britain, freeing up capacity at Heathrow for more
longer international flights.
By way of example, a
passenger from, eg, Birmingham would simply take a high speed
train direct to Heathrow (probably less than an hour's journey)
and then fly on from there, rather than taking a short first
flight to Heathrow and then a second flight.
It has been suggested that
this could replace some 66,500 domestic flights each year, which
is about one third of the additional flights that a third runway
at Heathrow would allow.
A connection to the new high
speed rail line to the Channel Tunnel might also eliminate some
of the shorter flights within Europe.
Britain's Conservative Party
has expressed support for connecting Heathrow to the national
high speed rail network, so these ideas are not entirely 'blue
sky'. But they're also a long way removed from any
substantive certainty, and for most of us, the next ten years or
more will involve the five airports, much as they currently are
Read more in Part 2
More specifics of the five
airports, and various comparative tables helping you to
understand which may be the best and worst choices for you
personally, are offered in the next part of this series -
London's Best and Worst
Airports and Why.
Part 1 of a seven part
series on London's airports - please
All 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
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27 Mar 2009, last update
08 Jul 2017
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