Comment: The plane truth about hidden Heathrow

Watford Observer: Comment: The plane truth about hidden Heathrow Comment: The plane truth about hidden Heathrow

Here's an interesting fact - when you’ve got the world's biggest passenger airplane coming straight at you, it looks huge. 

It makes you feel very small, very vulnerable and rather insignificant. And I know this because a few days ago, I was standing right in the path of an Airbus A380. If you’ve never heard of it, it’s a jumbo jet on steroids.

It’s like a big metal whale, with wings coming out the sides, capable of carrying more than 500 people all over the world and heralded as the future of aviation.

It’s so huge they’ve had to change the parking gates at Heathrow to fit these planes in and here I was, feet planted on terra firma, suddenly face-to-face with this vast machine.  I should explain. I was at Heathrow to record a report for my radio programme about the business of the airport and, as part of the process, I was getting a look around. 

It was special access to places you don’t normally get to see - the corridors and offices hidden away from the sight of passengers, the control tower where they order around the planes, and the network of runways and taxiways that criss-cross the airport. 

We were driven round by a man called Simon, who appears to know more about Heathrow than anyone in the world. 

He’s been working there for more than 20 years and leads the teams of people who scrutinise the airport's Tarmac looking for bits of debris or trouble-making birds. 

His job is often about driving around in the path of planes, making sure the runways remain in perfect condition.  There’s no time to shut Heathrow down for half an hour to sweep up, so Simon and his guys take every opportunity they can to monitor, inspect, and, basically, tidy up. 

And they do all this with airplanes taking off and landing, and also with an air of coolness and calm.  "You need a sixth sense for things," he told me cheerfully as we drove along, Simon turning his head to look at me as he made a point. 

Ahead of us, a Boeing 747 was poised at the start of the runway, ready to come hurtling towards us. Simon was telling me about the dangers of birds; I was worrying about the potential for being incinerated by aircraft engines. 

So it was that we wound up parked on an area of Tarmac just outside Terminal 3.  Specifically, this was where planes park to use Gate 3, and that's why the huge A380 was heading towards me, making me feel utterly insignificant.  I’d seen it land, smoke swirling off its tyres, and now it was rumbling towards me.

A few things. For one, they don’t have the people with the brightly coloured table tennis bats any more, waving them at pilots to tell them where to park. 

But they do have computer displays on the side of the building helping them to park, rather like having parking sensors for jetliners. 

For another, there is a huge array of people waiting for a plane when it comes into land.  Barely had the thing come to a halt than people were jumping into action, plugging in a power supply, connecting hoses, opening hatches and generally getting busy. 

By the time the actual air bridge is attached to get the passengers off, there are already a dozen other operations under way.  And yes, first class suitcases really are taken off first.  Among them - refuelling.

I admit I’ve never sat down to think much about how much fuel is used by a passenger plane, but it’s an astounding amount. 

The A380 takes 300,000 litres of fuel - that’s about 70,000 gallons.  To put that into some kind of context, the tankers we see on the motorway, whether full of milk, orange juice or fuel, can hold about 40,000 litres - so it would take seven or eight of them just to fill up this one plane. 

If Heathrow relied on tankers to deliver its fuel, the M25 would be gridlocked before a passenger had got on the road.  So all hail the person who came up with the fiendishly complicated system that lets them pump fuel all over Heathrow and any other major airport you care to visit.  It’s one of those inventions you’ve never thought of, but which has changed the world.

Albeit if you don’t like flying, or if don’t like the idea of industrial quantities of fossil fuel to carry people from one place to another, you may not be as enthusiastic.

The statistics at a place like this are all exaggerated. Heathrow itself is twice the size of Gibraltar and an average of 76,000 people work there.  Every year, 70 million people pass through, the equivalent of one per cent of the world’s population passing through its doors. 

And you know what? It’s on our doorstep. It’s not quite our patch, but it’s not far away either, which means we get to enjoy the benefits of having a nearby super-airport without having to tolerate daily litany of low-flying planes. 

And having stood on the airport outfield, as a few jets pass over my head, I can confidently say the thrill of overflying planes would soon wear out.  More and more people want to fly in and out of London and the big debate is how to accommodate that demand. 

Boris Johnson would like a new airport entirely while Heathrow and Gatwick have both proposed in-depth expansion plans. South west Hertfordshire, which is close to Heathrow and within an easy drive of Gatwick, will expect to feel the benefits.  Smart businesses will start thinking about that now. It may be a decade before we actually see new planes landing on new Tarmac, but it never hurts to look ahead.

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Comments (4)

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6:51pm Fri 4 Jul 14

WatfordAlex says...

Interesting stuff, but a lack of critical analysis in the last couple of paragraphs. There is actually no need to expand Heathrow or Gatwick. The Spanish owners of Heathrow are desperate to expand the airport as it impacts on their bonuses, but it is widely recognised that the costs (environmental, social) of expanding it are far too high.

BAA claim they need to expand so they can have more business flights to China, but the truth is that extra flights are overwhelmingly for leisure reasons, resulting in a net economic loss as more Brits fly abroad for short breaks and spend money overseas. Two of the busiest routes out of Heathrow are actually to Paris and Manchester, which are served by rail - so if the airport owners were really bothered about extra business flight to China then they could reduce the short haul stuff to free up space.

Plus, Stanstead has loads of excess capacity, while Luton and City Airport are expanding, which will cope with future demand. Finally, with 'peak oil' the price of fuel is likely to rise in the future, so demand forecasts are likely to be BS, while more video conferencing, more efficient planes and high speed rail wipes out growth projections yet further.
Interesting stuff, but a lack of critical analysis in the last couple of paragraphs. There is actually no need to expand Heathrow or Gatwick. The Spanish owners of Heathrow are desperate to expand the airport as it impacts on their bonuses, but it is widely recognised that the costs (environmental, social) of expanding it are far too high. BAA claim they need to expand so they can have more business flights to China, but the truth is that extra flights are overwhelmingly for leisure reasons, resulting in a net economic loss as more Brits fly abroad for short breaks and spend money overseas. Two of the busiest routes out of Heathrow are actually to Paris and Manchester, which are served by rail - so if the airport owners were really bothered about extra business flight to China then they could reduce the short haul stuff to free up space. Plus, Stanstead has loads of excess capacity, while Luton and City Airport are expanding, which will cope with future demand. Finally, with 'peak oil' the price of fuel is likely to rise in the future, so demand forecasts are likely to be BS, while more video conferencing, more efficient planes and high speed rail wipes out growth projections yet further. WatfordAlex
  • Score: 1

9:55am Sat 5 Jul 14

Airportworker says...

I'd disagree with Watfordalex over several points. It may be true that short haul routes are "among" the busiest but the busiest is to the US which is more business than leisure, and where will the economic growth come from that this country needs if we allow foreign businessmen to fully bypass the UK and travel to a growing China via competitor hubs.
The airport is a place that many people work because they love the environment and the article touches the passion and experience of people like Simon.
Heathrow is not anti-Gatwick growth as being a hub we are different, Gatwick are anti-Heathrow which is not in the longer term national interest and if either company's shareholders are to be criticised it should be the ones who are prepared to push their own agenda rather than the one of the country they operate in.
Yes I am biased but I work somewhere that contributes more to the national economy than many other UK employers. I have lived all my life in the same area within 7 miles if the airport and choose to stay there. Caveat emptor I think they'd have said in times gone by to people who complain about the noise, if it's too hot get out of the kitchen but leave it there for others to enjoy!
I'd disagree with Watfordalex over several points. It may be true that short haul routes are "among" the busiest but the busiest is to the US which is more business than leisure, and where will the economic growth come from that this country needs if we allow foreign businessmen to fully bypass the UK and travel to a growing China via competitor hubs. The airport is a place that many people work because they love the environment and the article touches the passion and experience of people like Simon. Heathrow is not anti-Gatwick growth as being a hub we are different, Gatwick are anti-Heathrow which is not in the longer term national interest and if either company's shareholders are to be criticised it should be the ones who are prepared to push their own agenda rather than the one of the country they operate in. Yes I am biased but I work somewhere that contributes more to the national economy than many other UK employers. I have lived all my life in the same area within 7 miles if the airport and choose to stay there. Caveat emptor I think they'd have said in times gone by to people who complain about the noise, if it's too hot get out of the kitchen but leave it there for others to enjoy! Airportworker
  • Score: 4

5:58pm Sat 5 Jul 14

Harry Caine says...

Airportworker wrote:
I'd disagree with Watfordalex over several points. It may be true that short haul routes are "among" the busiest but the busiest is to the US which is more business than leisure, and where will the economic growth come from that this country needs if we allow foreign businessmen to fully bypass the UK and travel to a growing China via competitor hubs.
The airport is a place that many people work because they love the environment and the article touches the passion and experience of people like Simon.
Heathrow is not anti-Gatwick growth as being a hub we are different, Gatwick are anti-Heathrow which is not in the longer term national interest and if either company's shareholders are to be criticised it should be the ones who are prepared to push their own agenda rather than the one of the country they operate in.
Yes I am biased but I work somewhere that contributes more to the national economy than many other UK employers. I have lived all my life in the same area within 7 miles if the airport and choose to stay there. Caveat emptor I think they'd have said in times gone by to people who complain about the noise, if it's too hot get out of the kitchen but leave it there for others to enjoy!
You are John Holland-Kaye and I claim my £5
[quote][p][bold]Airportworker[/bold] wrote: I'd disagree with Watfordalex over several points. It may be true that short haul routes are "among" the busiest but the busiest is to the US which is more business than leisure, and where will the economic growth come from that this country needs if we allow foreign businessmen to fully bypass the UK and travel to a growing China via competitor hubs. The airport is a place that many people work because they love the environment and the article touches the passion and experience of people like Simon. Heathrow is not anti-Gatwick growth as being a hub we are different, Gatwick are anti-Heathrow which is not in the longer term national interest and if either company's shareholders are to be criticised it should be the ones who are prepared to push their own agenda rather than the one of the country they operate in. Yes I am biased but I work somewhere that contributes more to the national economy than many other UK employers. I have lived all my life in the same area within 7 miles if the airport and choose to stay there. Caveat emptor I think they'd have said in times gone by to people who complain about the noise, if it's too hot get out of the kitchen but leave it there for others to enjoy![/p][/quote]You are John Holland-Kaye and I claim my £5 Harry Caine
  • Score: 1

12:36am Sun 6 Jul 14

poulan says...

This article really runs out of steam
This article really runs out of steam poulan
  • Score: -1

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