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Heathrow airport’s strange history of evasion and expansion

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The expansion of Heathrow airport is part of a plan hatched at its very inception, writes Simon Basketter
Issue 2103

London’s Heathrow airport is an ever-expanding city state that sucks in workers in the pursuit of profit. It is the world’s busiest international airport and it grows constantly with an accumulation of land, wealth and pollution for the sake of commerce.

Heathrow is a 24-hour shopping centre with a captive audience. It is a fenced-in, steel and glass cathedral to the market, and keeps running because of low wages and exploitation.

Once a minute a plane flies over the heads of those living nearby. The flights are low and loud enough that conversation has to stop. Some two million people are affected by noise and pollution from the airport.

The airport handles 67.5 million passengers a year and is the biggest single-site employer in Britain. It currently directly employs some 72,000 people and supports perhaps another 100,000 jobs.

In the London suburbs of Southall and Hounslow, the small sweatshops that hid behind the high streets in the 1960s and 1970s were closed down.

But they were replaced by the multinational sweatshops of the airline caterers, and the overpriced coffee and food chains.

Heathrow’s workers have had to struggle hard to win decent living standards throughout the airport’s history. Asian workers had to struggle to even get jobs there.

The 1970s saw a period of militancy at the airport with a number of strikes, including a massive engineering strike in 1977 over pay, which won after two weeks.

That militancy still exists. Check-in staff walked out unofficially in July 2003 against new clocking on and off procedures.

After catering staff at the Gate Gourmet firm were sacked in 2005, thousands of workers across the airport walked out unofficially in their support.


British lobbyists and the bosses talk about the need for a “hub” airport to justify Heathrow’s existence.

Their business model assumes it is more efficient to put passengers on feeder flights in and out of a huge hub airport.

Federal Express developed this “hub-and spoke” model in the 1950s in the US. It found that it could move parcels more profitably from New York to Washington by flying them 1,000 miles from New York to Memphis and then 800 miles to Washington, rather than shipping them directly by road.

Passenger airlines all rushed to copy the model. It isn’t that efficient for parcels, never mind people or the planet. But it was profitable.

During the Second World War, the aviation industry saw Heathrow – then a small airfield surrounded by market gardens – as the ideal opportunity to make a profit.

The Tory aviation minister Harold Balfour agreed with them. But Balfour recognised that he would not persuade the cabinet to go for Heathrow unless he sold it to them as an airport essential to the war effort.

So the cabinet agreed to proposals for a military airport. The RAF never used Heathrow. The embryonic airline industry had got its way by deception.

Balfour had used a wartime emergency requisition order to avoid a lengthy and costly public inquiry.

He wrote, “Almost the last thing I did at the air ministry of any importance was to hijack for civil aviation the land on which London [Heathrow] airport stands under the noses of resistant ministerial colleagues. If hijack is too strong a term, I plead guilty to the lesser crime of deceiving a cabinet committee.”

As Heathrow was born so it has grown. The location of the airport itself, to the west of London, is irrational. The site is low lying, being 25 metres above sea level, and prone to fog.

Heathrow is the only main urban airport that lies on an east-west axis relative to the city it serves.

This is a problem because prevailing winds in much of the world blow from west to east. Runways have to be aligned in this direction and aircraft using Heathrow must take off and land over densely-populated parts of London.

The perversely sited central terminals can only be reached by tunnels. Their position was based on the presumption that there would never be a need for large car parks since airline passengers would be wealthy – and therefore they would be chauffeur-driven.

Yet at the same time the original plan for the airport envisaged extension to the north.

That would have involved demolishing the villages of Harmondsworth, Sipson and Harlington. After opposition the plans were ­abandoned in December 1952.

The air ministry committee wrote, “No government would be prepared to consider a project that involved razing to the three old world villages of Harmondsworth, Sipson and Harlington to the ground.”

The men from the ministry hadn’t envisaged New Labour. The government is expected to oversee the expansion of Heathrow that will see the destruction of those very same areas.

The high street in Harmondsworth will be split, and a graveyard bulldozed. Sipson will disappear. In total around 4,000 houses will have to be demolished or abandoned.

Some 700 of these were built after a 1952 government guarantee that even if Heathrow expanded, Sipson would remain untouched.


The government claims that anyone evicted from their home as a result of expansion will be fully compensated, though how is not yet clear.

The villages might be almost ­stereotypical, with listed buildings, old churches and the like. But the people who live in them are workers in the airport.

People who have worked in Heathrow for decades are heading up the protests against the new runway.

Those who keep Heathrow running are those who suffer most directly from the pollution it produces.

They are to be evicted, and their homes consumed by the airport they work in.

That is the logic of allowing business to take precedence over people and the planet.

Say no to Heathrow airport expansion
demonstration, Saturday 31 May, 12 noon. Assemble Hatton Cross tube station


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