What Happened To London Heathrow’s Six Runway Layout?

The topic of London Heathrow adding a third runway has long been controversial. There is an ongoing debate whether Europe’s busiest airport should expand. Interestingly, in the past, the airport actually had six runways and could have introduced more! Let’s take a look at what happened.

Heathrow Six Runways
The former layout draws similarities to the design of the Star of David. Photo: The National Archives UK
Licensing via Wikimedia Commons

Adapting to the industry

Fairey Aviation operated Heathrow during the early 20th century, and during this time the site had just a single runway. However, two more tracks were added in 1946. This move was in coordination with the opening of the site for civilian activity. Thus, London Airport was on its way to become the United Kingdom’s international hub.

Amid the growing aviation industry in the 1950s, three more runways were introduced. Notably, the numerous runways helped to make sure that two options were always on offer in any wind direction. The overall plan was for a network of shorter strips and taxiways, along with a main central terminal and control tower.

The six runways on the ground were split by the following:

  • Two east-west runaways (which are still in place today)
  • Two SE-to-NW and SW-to-NE strips
  • A pair of bigger runways to handle heavier aircraft

The heavier types at the time would be in the form of planes such as the Bristol Brabazon. This aircraft weighed just over 100 tons, whereas the jumbos of today, such as the Airbus A380, weigh up to nearly 600 tons. This factor shows how far airport capability has come.

London Airport
The airport was formally transferred from the Air Ministry at the beginning of 1946. Photo: Heathrow Airports Limited

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A change in direction

There were plans for further expansions, which would have seen the destruction of settlements and the diversion of roads. Nearby residents were even given notice about these prospects.

Nonetheless, according to Londonist, if the move went ahead, it would be too expensive. Moreover, as with the opposition to runway expansions today, such an action would be met with significant challenges.

In fact, Heathrow started to go in another direction, dropping most of its runways. It has had only two runways since the 1970s as the shorter strips couldn’t keep up with the requirements of modern aircraft such as the new jets that were arriving on the scene. Therefore, the focus shifted to extending the two runways that we currently see in action to meet the needs of the market.

British Airways, Boeing 747, Last Flight
Widebodies became the norm by the time the 1970s were over. Photo: Getty Images

Today’s climate

Nonetheless, the mark of the former runways is still evident today. In aerial shots of Heathrow, a faint pattern of the star is visible, but most of the design is blocked by newer buildings of the airport.

Since the pandemic hit, Heathrow has largely been using just a single runway for its operations due to the lack of demand. However, following recovery, the airport will undoubtedly be bustling with planes again.

The debate whether a third runway is needed continues, but a new addition could be on the cards for the early 2030s. Had Heathrow designed the layout of its earlier runways a little differently, the site may not have had to go through the extensive struggles to add another one now.

What are your thoughts about Heathrow’s runways? Do you feel that another one is needed? Let us know what you think of the situation in the comment section.