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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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