Heathrow Airport — located west of London’s center — is one of the busiest airports in the world. More than 80 million passengers fly to more than 200 international destinations out of Heathrow Airport every year.
London locals, worldwide adventure seekers, business travelers, and airport aficionados are familiar with Heathrow’s history and cultural significance. Heathrow Airport evolved to become the air travel hub it is today over decades of use and expansion. Its humble beginnings were as a private grass runway for test flights. Next, it was requisitioned for use during World War II. Finally, it made its debut as a major center for passenger travel.
But every landmark has some secrets even the locals don’t know. Here are three secrets about Heathrow Airport that might surprise you.
Cover image credit: Ian Schofield / Shutterstock
Heathrow Brings Christmas to the United Kingdom and the World
People think “passengers and luggage” when they picture airports, but many planes also carry ridiculous amounts of cargo from Point A to Point B. Leading up to the holiday season in 2017, almost 150,000 metric tons of Christmas cargo departed Heathrow Airport bound for homes around the world. That’s a lot of presents and pound cakes! Popular Christmas staples sent out of Heathrow include salmon, Christmas lighting, and frozen lobster.
Heathrow Airport traditionally creates social media campaigns and associated tracking activities to have fun with the Christmas season. While people are the most prominent passengers out of Heathrow every year, cargo can’t be ignored. More than 1.7 million metric tons of cargo came and went from Heathrow Airport in 2018.
Heathrow Airport has a Virtual Back-Up Control Tower
Heathrow Airport’s Virtual Contingency Facility (VCF) was the first of its kind when it was constructed in 2009. Heathrow’s main control tower, which stretches into the sky at a height of 20 double-decker buses, monitors and directs more than 1,300 daily flights. The VCF is meant to be used as a back-up control room/tower in the event of a serious problem.
Before the VCF was introduced, contingency plans could support only 10% of flight traffic at Heathrow Airport. The state-of-the-art facility “[enables] Heathrow to continue to operate up to 70% of its flights if the main control tower were unavailable” and “exactly replicates each of the controller workstations of the main control tower and is housed in a windowless facility on a secure site away from the airfield.”
VCF operators don’t need big windows or even to be at the airport to do their duties. Heathrow’s Virtual Contingency Facility, with its advanced digital radar and surveillance capabilities, can even help during low visibility conditions to ensure safety and accuracy.
There’s a Deserted Railway Station Under Heathrow Airport
The ghost railway station underneath Heathrow Airport stretches the length of 33 double-decker buses and was built in 2008 to serve Terminal 5 — the airport’s newest terminal at the time. The thing is, this railway station has never been opened to the public, and Heathrow’s head of surface access considers it to be the airport’s biggest secret.
Platforms have been placed, and the concrete interior stretches eerily to and from Heathrow, but much still needs to be done before the station functions like intended. Officials are hoping the railway station will be operational some time between 2020 and 2030. The goal is to have the station eventually become part of the National Rail network.
Christmas around the world, deserted-but-not-forgotten underground rail stations, and remote-controlled virtual control towers are only a fraction of what Heathrow Airport has to offer international travelers. The airport employs more than 75,000 people year-round, and the expansive airport grounds are just dying to be explored, whether you’ve got a layover or just can’t get enough of airport hospitality!