Visiting Heathrow

Heathrow Airport lies roughly 12 miles to the west of central London in the borough of Hillingdon. Harlington, Longford, Cranford and Harmondsworth are built-up areas that surround it. Hatton and Hounslow are to the east and East Bedfont and Stanwell to the south. The M25 motorway to the west separates Heathrow from Colnbrook in the county of Berkshire.

During World War I, a military airfield stood on the site. By the 1930s the Great Western Aerodrome, as the site was then called, was owned by an aviation company and used for assembling and testing aircraft. At the time, Croydon was London's main airport and commercial traffic flew from there.

Heathrow developed as a transfer station for the RAF in 1943 when it came under government control. In 1944 runways were constructed. Wimpey Construction built the new airport which was named after Heathrow, a hamlet which was a row of cottages standing on Hounslow Heath. These were demolished to make way for the airport.

However, the airport was never used by the RAF and eventually control passed to the Ministry of Civil Aviation. On January 1st 1946 the first civil flight took off to Buenos Aires. On March 25th 1946, the Minister of Aviation performed the official opening ceremony and on April 16th that year the first foreign airline landed at the airport.

Queen Elizabeth II ceremonially placed the first slab of Heathrow's first runway. More terminals followed, a new control tower replaced the original RAF one, public viewing facilities were provided and by 1968, more than fourteen million passengers used the airport annually.

In the early days it was assumed that passengers using the airport would not require much in the way of car parking. At the time, air travel was for the wealthy and they would normally be chauffeur-driven. Today Heathrow has five terminals and two runways which run parallel from east to west. The airport used to have six runways which were angled in pairs. There is also an excellent Visitor Centre, The Heathrow Academy.

In 2006 Pier 6 was finished at Terminal 3. This was to accommodate the superjumbo, Airbus A380 and the recently-opened Terminal 5 was constructed to be compatible with the Airbus. The first A380 in service to carry passengers was a Singapore Airlines flight which carried 470 passengers in 2008.

Aircraft approach the runways directly over London which is unavoidable due to their orientation which is east-west. Heathrow is low-lying, being only 83 feet above sea level and this makes the airport prone to fog.

London is served by six airports and, along with Heathrow, there are Gatwick, Luton, Stansted, City and Southend. Heathrow is the busiest airport in the world when it comes to international passenger traffic and also the busiest in the UK. Heathrow is the home of Virgin Atlantic, British Airways and BMI and is used by more than 90 airlines. Flights are to more than 170 worldwide destinations.

In terms of the number of passengers, the most used destination is New York. Eleven percent of passengers travel to destinations in the UK and 43% of passengers use short-haul international flights.

A new Air Traffic Control Tower was opened in 2007 by Douglas Alexander, Secretary of State for Transport.

The airport is policed by the Metropolitan Police's aviation security unit. However, at times of heightened security, the army has been deployed..

Each terminal has a multi-faith prayer room as well as St George's Interdenominational Chapel. The airport has Catholic, Anglican, Muslim, Free Church, Hindu, Sikh and Jewish chaplains. An Anglican service takes place on Tuesdays and Wednesdays and there is a daily Catholic Mass.

The airport has its own press corps. One television crew and six photographers are resident at the airport and they serve all major television stations and newspapers worldwide.

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