Looking back at seven decades of Heathrow Airport

As the UK's biggest airport, the name Heathrow is known across the world. The airport has seen more than two billion passengers pass through its doors since 1946 and as it celebrates its 70th year, reporter Tara O'Connor checked in to uncover how it transformed from a military airfield to one of the busiest aviation hubs in the world.

Tara OConnor


What started as a 150-acre plot has grown into one of the world’s busiest international airports with its growth showing no signs of stopping.

This year marks 70 years since the first civil flight flew from Heathrow Airport.

In its first form, British aircraft builder Richard Fairey bought a 150-acre plot as a private airport in 1930.

Called Fairey’s Great West Aerodrome, it was bought for £15,000, and used to make and test planes.

The aerodrome was requisitioned by the government in the Second World War, along with other land in and around the ancient village of Heath Row to build an RAF base.

Work on Heathrow started in 1944 but by that time the war had finished and it was taken on by the Air Ministry.

In its first year, 1946, 63,000 passengers passed through the new London airport.

In the years since there have been more than 20 million flights and two billion passengers at the airport.

Kevan James, who has published a book to coincide with the landmark anniversary, described Heathrow as ‘one of the world’s greatest airports’.

The 59-year-old lives in Rochester, Kent and his new book ‘Heathrow Airport: An Illustrated History’ was published in April.

He said: “I’ve deliberately avoided using too much technical jargon so that anyone who flies can see how it works.

“I think the most interesting part is the people who work there.

“When you consider the number of people that pass through it, to make it all work is quite fundamental to a successful airport. It wouldn’t be successful unless it was run and managed properly.”

Heathrow’s CEO John Holland Kaye said the ‘significant milestone’ marks the ‘the incredible transformation of Heathrow'.

“Heathrow has come a long way from being a military airfield to a national asset, which is now a globally recognised brand,” said John.

Controversial plans to build a third runway at Heathrow have recently thrust the airport into the political spotlight and divided opinion.

Earlier this month, Windsor’s MP Adam Afriyie accused the Airports Commission of being ‘stuck in the past’ following its decision to recommend a third runway.

He said that he plans to fight ‘tooth and nail’ to protect the homes of his constituents and will be urging the Government to opt for a new runway at Gatwick instead.

The Royal Borough also backs Mr Afriyie’s opinion, threatening the Government with court action in March if the third runway is not ruled out.

In the same month, Slough Borough Council came out in support of plans for a third runway.

Unrelated to whether or not the third runway will be installed at Heathrow, John Holland Kaye said he is looking ahead to the future of the airport.

“I’m looking forward to celebrating the history of this amazing airport this year,” he added.

“But I’m also looking forward to the next 70 years as Heathrow aims to be the best connected, and most environmentally responsible, airport in the world.”

PROFILE: Reuniting lost children, chasing animals and helping with marriage proposals – it is all in a day’s work for the 7,500 members of staff at Heathrow Airport.

Sunita Nanda has been passenger experience manager at Heathrow for nine years.

She has lived in Upton Court, Slough, with husband Yash for the past 12 years.

Before moving to Slough, she worked at Hammersmith Council but just when the commute was taking its toll a job came up at the airport.

Growing up under the flight path in Hounslow, the 54-year-old said it was one of her ‘childhood dreams’ to work at the airport.

“I used to want to work at check in but it is not as glamorous as it used to be,” she said.

Her job is about ensuring passengers pass through the airport ‘as quickly as possible’.

She was featured on ITV programme Britain’s Busiest Airport: Heathrow, when cameras followed her negotiating the stressful situation of reuniting a mother with her missing toddler.

“The whole passenger experience is so different every day. You don’t know what to expect when you come in, it’s about thinking on your feet,” she said.

“My colleagues have actually once had to chase a fox in the building as well as a pigeon and a hawk.”

One of Sunita’s most memorable experiences was when a man proposed to his girlfriend at the airport.

“He had to seek permission first and the way he did it was so beautiful, he had violins and got people to hold A3-sized pictures of his girlfriend,” she said.

Despite some memorable experiences, she added her favourite bit of the job is the people she works with everyday.

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