Featured image: London Heathrow Media Center

5/31/1946: London Heathrow Begins Commercial Operations

DALLAS – Today, in 1946, London Heathrow Airport (LHR), originally London Airport until 1966, officially opened for commercial air travel.

We take a quick look at the rather prosaical start of one of the busiest airports in Europe and the second busiest airport in the world by international passenger traffic.

Aerial photo of Heathrow Airport from the 1950s, before the terminals were built. Photo: By The National Archives UK – Heathrow StarOur Catalogue Reference: BT 219/115

An Airfield in Suburbia

Initially, it was just called London Airport, only officially becoming Heathrow a while later. London Airport took over from Croydon Aerodrome the role of London’s main airport, which had been functioning at that capacity since 1920.

But LHR’s origins as an airport revert to the early days of aviation. According to London Historians, West London had served as the base for manufacturers of military aircraft including Sopwith (later Hawker) in Kingston and Fairey in Hayes.

At the start of the 20th century, airstrips were popular in the suburbia of London, in places such as Hendon, Croydon, and Northland, and in a hamlet near Hounslow Heath called Heathrow. That now-lost village had been around since the Middle Ages, approximately where Terminal 3 is today.

Fairey Aviation, led by Sir Richard Fairey, was evicted from Northolt by the Air Ministry in the late 1920s, and so it purchased land during the 1930s, establishing a three-runway aerodrome in the Heathrow area. It was named the Harmondsworth Aerodrome, then the Great West Aerodrome, and finally the Heathrow Aerodrome.

Alas, the British government evicted Fairey Aviation once more from its home under emergency powers in 1944 – without reimbursement. At the end of WWII, the aerodrome was turned over to civilian use, thus becoming London Airport.

Photo: London Heathrow Airport

Airport Expansions

The airport was destined to be very busy in the next 10 years, but not until after the mid-1950s, when Terminal 1 Britannic (later Terminal 2), and Terminal 2 Oceanic (later Terminal 3) were built.

After Terminal 1 was completed in 1969, no further expansions were seen at LHR for another decade until the first passenger terminal outside the central terminal complex was built: Terminal 4 opened on the South Perimeter in 1986.

On March 14, 2008, Terminal 5, located at the western end of the airport, was opened by Queen Elizabeth II. Additionally, a permanent cargo area was built on the South Perimeter.

In September 2012, the UK Government set up the Airports Commission, an independent entity headed by Sir Howard Davies, to investigate different options for increasing capacity at United Kingdom airports.

Finally, in July 2015, the Commission backed a new third runway at LHR, which was authorized by the government in October 2016. However, because of questions regarding climate change and the environmental effects of aviation, the nation’s Court of Appeal dismissed the proposal at LHR.

British Airways Concorde in early BA livery at LHR, in the early 1980s. Photo: By Plismo – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0

Home of the Supersonic Jet

The jewels of every airport and the reason spotters flock to them are the jets. While LHR is riddled with Airbus and Boeing aircraft, it has seen the likes of Britain’s own Viscounts, BAC 1-11, Comets, and VC10.

But probably the most stunning aircraft spotted at LHR was the iconic Concorde. LHR was her home and an important part of her legacy.

In 1976, the experience of air travel reached new levels of luxury and speed with Concorde, the first supersonic jet. It entered into commercial service with Air France (AF) and British Airways (BA), starting a career that lasted 27 years.

On October 24, 2003, BA withdrew the Concorde, bringing to a close the world’s only supersonic passenger service. The final scheduled commercial flight was BA002 from JFK, operated by G-BOAG.

Photo: London Heathrow Media Center

Europe’s Premier Hub

Today, LHR is the primary hub for BA and the primary operating base for Virgin Atlantic (VS), the latter of which at the start of May 2021 closed its London Gatwick (LGW) base, thus consolidating its London area operations to a single base at LHR.

The airport is the seventh busiest in the world in terms of overall passenger traffic and one of the six international airports serving the London area.

In 2019, the airport handled a reported 80.8 million passengers, a 0.9% rise from 2018, as well as 475,861 aircraft movements.

Before the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic began, LHR had around 90 airlines flying to over 180 destinations in 90 countries worldwide, with routes stretching from Abu Dhabi and Zurich to Helsinki and Honolulu.

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