Sorry, Chicago, the world lands here Heathrow: Its first terminal was a tent village and its first passenger plane a converted bomber. Today, London's Heathrow is the largest international airport, serving 56 million passengers a year.

Sun Journal

September 18, 1997|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

HOUNSLOW, England -- It's a gloriously untroubled day in the life of Heathrow Airport. The skies are clear, the planes on time. Clive Thomas, the airport duty manager, is finishing a 12-hour shift.

He steers his Land Rover for a last swing across two runways. Jets are taking off and landing at the rate of one every 50 seconds. Thomas checks to make sure all is clear at Heathrow's immense fuel station. He rumbles by an enormous repair shop where workers comb through a British Airways jumbo jet. Finally, he makes his way through a labyrinth of roads at four passenger terminals, as baggage handlers shove trolleys heaving with luggage from nearly every part of the planet.

"We're the biggest international airport in the world," Thomas says. "If you're looking for numbers of flights and people, go to Chicago O'Hare. But that's bus stop transportation. Short hop stuff."

At Heathrow, they deal with the world.

If there is a shred of romance left in air travel, it can be found somewhere deep inside Heathrow's cramped, crowded terminals, lying 12 miles west of central London.

On the arrival and departure boards flash flights for Barcelona and Beirut, Casablanca and Calcutta. More than 90 airlines operate here, from Air Namibia to Yemenia. Passengers come and go from Asia, Africa, Australia and the Americas. They wear shorts, sarongs, suits, dashikis, turbans, fur hats and fur coats.

For millions of travelers from the United States, Heathrow provides a first peek at Europe, from narrow hallways leading to a cavernous immigration center to a terminal teeming with life -- and commerce.

The telephones are gray. The waiting cabs are black. The accents come from all parts of the world.

"All human life is here," Thomas says. "You're not dealing primarily with one group, with Europeans, or even with British. Sometimes, you're dealing with people who have never even been on an escalator before."

Heathrow revels in its position as the world's meeting point.

There are 1,200 flights a day and more than 426,000 a year.

The airport handles 56 million passengers a year -- nearly the population of Great Britain. Another 60 million baggage items flow through the airport. So do 250,000 animals placed in a quarantine center.

Sometime next century, there could be a fifth terminal on site to handle another 30 million passengers. The plan is so contentious, it has already been the subject of the longest governmental hearing in British history: two years so far, with no end in sight.

Heathrow's operator, BAA, says that without a new terminal, the airport will lose its position as a world hub. But environmentalists and local residents say a new terminal will bring greater noise and congestion.

Heathrow is already a large city. It has three subway stops and Britain's largest bus station. It has 54,000 workers, enough to fill Oriole Park at Camden Yards and then some.

A bottle of whiskey is sold every seven seconds in one or another of the airport's 100 or so stores. The airport accounts for 10 percent of Britain's perfume sales and 5 percent of the country's book sales. The public that converges daily on the airport gobbles up 26,000 cups of tea, 6,500 pints of beer and 6,500 sandwiches.

"You could live here," says Thomas, "and never have to move."

The government began to build the airport near the end of World War II, on a site that included a hamlet named Heath Row. Civilian control began Jan. 1, 1946. That same day, a converted Lancaster bomber with six crew members, 10 passengers, and a ton of mail, began a flight to Buenos Aires.

The journey took 35 hours and three stops.

Heathrow's official opening was May 31, 1946. The first passenger terminal was a tent village furnished with chintz armchairs, and outfitted with a bar, newspaper stand, cable desk and chemical toilets. In that first wet summer, rain poured into buckets and boards were laid out to deal with the mud.

Heathrow has been growing ever since.

There's a plush royal suite and a press corps that surrounds the celebrities who pass through. There is a police force, fire service and ambulance corps, and a camera surveillance system.

Thomas, a former Royal Air Force officer, is well-known at Heathrow for ordering the airport shut down for 20 minutes during a March 1994 mortar attack by the Irish Republican Army. "The traffic control tower asked me, 'How do you shut an airport? What do you do with the planes?' "

"Well, you tell them to put their brakes on. We slowed stuff that was coming toward us."

There is also the Rev. David Smith, an Anglican minister. When he isn't waiting for passengers to find their way into the cavern-like St. George's Chapel -- equipped with three altars and an arrow pointing toward Mecca -- he prowls the airport armed with a portable telephone, beeper and Bible.

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