It is the front door to Britain but Heathrow, the UK’s busiest airport with 480,000 flights in and out a year, is full.
The airport lost the accolade of being the world’s busiest for international passengers at the end of last year, but it is determined not to drift down the ranks of world airports as air travel continues to grow.
Dubai International knocked Heathrow off the top spot when it reached 71 million passengers last year, allowing it to leapfrog Heathrow, which had about 68.1 million passengers. Dubai is not resting on its laurels and expects to reach 90 million passengers in the next three years.
Worryingly, though, Heathrow slipped behind Hong Kong in January’s international passenger rankings, and found itself in the No 3 slot.
For many years now, Heathrow has wanted to build a third runway, but has been prevented from doing so by parliamentary prevarications, government U-turns and local opposition.
Now an independent body is set to rule within months on whether a new runway for south-east England can be built at either Gatwick or Heathrow, the two biggest airports serving London and international markets.
Back in 2008, Willie Walsh, then the chief executive of British Airways (now International Airlines Group, or IAG) warned that Dubai wanted to “become the hub that links the world’s biggest aviation market, North America, with its fastest-growing, Asia”.
Even Dubai wants Heathrow to grow. Paul Griffiths, chief executive of Dubai International Airport has publicly backed Heathrow for a new runway, because of the pressure from his airline customers and passengers for more flights to London.
The man leading Heathrow’s fightback is John Holland-Kaye, chief executive of Heathrow Airport. He says that 30 international airlines are clamouring to be let into Heathrow.
On a walk through Heathrow’s newly built Terminal 2, he demonstrates that he is a details man: plunging abruptly to the floor from time to time to pick up a dropped tissue; showing me the receptacle he arranged to have built “in days” that allows passengers to empty their water bottles and then refill them after security.
Mr Holland-Kaye is passionate that Heathrow must be allowed to expand, and believes that the UK’s ability to do business with the rest of the world will be damaged if it does not.
“A quarter of UK exports go by air. Many of the places that we need to get to are in China and Asia. We may not have heard of them now, but in 10 years’ time they will be the places where business is being done. Unless we have built the connections with them now, we will have to get there via Paris, Frankfurt or Dubai and give up our role as a central economic trading block,” he says.
Mr Holland-Kaye joined the British Airport Authority’s senior management in 2009 and was promoted to chief executive when his boss, Colin Matthews, stepped down last year.
Now that he is in charge he thinks that the airport is considerably better than it was six years ago, but the real test will be what it is like in five years’ time.
Since 2003 Heathrow has invested £11 billion (Dh61.16bn) across all of its terminals. When the new Terminal 2 opened last year, Heathrow became the first airport in the world to have its own personal shopping lounge, two restaurants created by Michelin-starred chefs including The Perfectionists’ Cafe by Heston Blumenthal, and a John Lewis shop.
Following an investment of more than £40 million and 18 months’ worth of work, Terminal 5’s latest luxury shopping redevelopment opened. Louis Vuitton, Cartier, Rolex, Fortnum & Mason and Bottega Veneta have airport stores that echoing their Mayfair flagships for luxury styling.
The investment is paying off. Recently Heathrow scored its highest ranking on two closely-watched industry benchmarks – the Airport Service Quality Awards and Skytrax, which named it “Best airport in western Europe” for the first time.
But that is not the end of the building work. Terminal 1 will close next month, now that all airlines have been moved out of it, and then work will start to double the size of T2, which should be finished by 2019. Airlines in T3 will be moved into the new facility, with T3 due to close in the next 10 to 15 years.
“Back in 2006 when we had the liquids crisis, it was clear that all that 1950s and 1960s infrastructure was no longer fit for purpose. Now two-thirds of all our passengers are effectively going through a brand-new airport,” Mr Holland-Kaye says.
Close attention has been paid to the amount of natural light in the terminal, how passengers walk to gates [in as straight a line as possible] and how easy it is to get to onwards transport.
Technology that speeds up check-in has also been put in and passengers are helped by a team of ambassadors, who together speak 38 languages.
Dubai International Airport may offer the opportunity to buy gold bullion from duty free, or a supercar on your stopover, but Heathrow’s services are more practical – free attended play areas, free beauty treatments and a wide range of places to eat and drink, including its very own landside Wetherspoon pub.
The airport’s management is now turning its attention to how people travel to the West London airport, conscious that airports are rated on how easy it is to get from the aircraft to thecentre of the city.
From 2017, the new Crossrail link will speed passenger travel eastward, and from 2021 a £500m new rail link to Reading – about 64 kilometres west of the capital – will open.
Emirates, Qatar and Etihad between them have 92 arrivals and departures a week in and out of Heathrow, but would like more flights.
To get those flights, they will have to buy slots from other airlines. Qatar recently spent $20m on a slot.
Nigel Milton, Heathrow’s director of external affairs, says: “The three Gulf airlines would like to have more services to Heathrow, unfortunately the only way they can do that is to buy slots or to use bigger aeroplanes. We are very tuned into their needs, even though they are not based here, and they have all backed Heathrow as the best option for a new runway.”
European and Arabian Gulf airports and airlines are competitors and sometimes antagonists. But the lines are not clear cut. After all, Qatar’s sovereign wealth fund is an investor in Heathrow Airport Group and has a seat on its board.
The rivalry between Dubai International and Heathrow might be fierce when it comes to competing for traffic to emerging markets in Africa and Asia. But the ties between the two regions will only flourish if Heathrow is allowed to grow.