Heathrow Became A Commercial Airport 75 Years Ago Today

Today marks a special anniversary for the UK’s (and indeed Europe’s) busiest airport by pre-COVID passenger traffic. Specifically, London Heathrow Airport (LHR) is celebrating 75 years since opening as a commercial hub. Looking back over three-quarters of a century of revenue-earning operations, the airport has reflected on its history and future.

Heathrow Airport Plane
Happy anniversary! Photo: Getty Images

Heathrow before the commercial boom

London Heathrow Airport proudly took to Twitter this morning to announce that May 31st, 2021 represents three-quarters of a century since it opened for commercial use. While revenue-earning services began in 1946, the site, as a whole, dates back to before the Second World War. Indeed, it opened in 1929 as a small airfield named Great West Aerodrome.

When World War II came around, it, like many such airfields, saw use as a military base, known in this case, as RAF Heston. Towards the end of the conflict, it began being developed to facilitate larger military aircraft, although the war’s end kept such planes from being needed there. Nonetheless, the government continued the development for use as a civil airport.

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Heathrow opened commercially a year after the Second World War ended. Photo: Getty Images

A far cry from the mega-hub of today

This resulted in the airport’s official commercial opening 75 years ago today. For the first two decades of its life, the facility was known as London Airport, before assuming its current identity of Heathrow in 1966. Interestingly, commercial services commenced months before the official opening. Heathrow was a very different facility back then, as the airport explains:

Whilst the first commercial flight to depart ‘London Airport’ was on 1st January 1946, the airport didn’t officially open until 31st May 1946, with passenger terminals made from ex-military marquees that formed a ‘tented village’ along the Bath Road.”

The passenger numbers experienced in the airport’s first year of operations also contrasted significantly to the situation 75 years later. The airport welcomed over 80 million passengers in 2019, and 22 million last year amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Heathrow Became A Commercial Airport 75 Years Ago Today
Air traffic controllers at LHR helped 80 million passengers on their way in 2019. Photo: Getty Images

However, the figure for 1946 was just 63,000. Incredibly, Business Insider reports that this is the same number of people employed at Hartsfield–Jackson Atlanta International (ATL), which was the world’s busiest airport before the pandemic hit.

The airport today, and in the future

Since its opening, Heathrow has grown to become one of the world’s most significant intercontinental hubs. As well as being the busiest in the UK and Europe pre-pandemic by passenger traffic, it ranks seventh in the world by this metric. When considering just international passengers, it climbs to second place, behind Dubai (DXB).

Today, the airport has two runways, although it previously had as many as six, laid out in a star pattern. It has four passenger terminals, numbered 2-5. Terminal 1 closed in 2015, with the space it previously occupied now set aside for the expansion of Terminal 2.

British Airways, Waterside, Head Office
Heathrow’s third runway will likely be situated to the northwest of the existing airport complex. Photo: Heathrow Airport

As it happens, the expansion of Terminal 2, whose first phase opened in June 2014, is not the airport’s only major infrastructure project currently in the pipeline. Indeed, the airport is also aiming to construct a third runway to help ease congestion there.

The need for this has arisen due to the limited capacity that the present two-runway setup offers. However, with strong opposition and other operational factors in the way, the project has suffered several delays. It is currently expected to open in the early to mid-2030s, although the present pandemic situation may yet impact the project further.

What are your memories of Heathrow over the years? How do you see the airport’s next 25 years panning out? Let us know your thoughts and experiences in the comments.