On December 16 1955, a young Queen Elizabeth opened the first terminal building at London Airport, the hub now known as Heathrow.
Her Majesty, who arrived dressed in an air force blue coat, declared the opening an “important stage in the story of London Airport”, as the terminal replaced a village of tents where passengers were previously forced to wait for their flights.
On Tuesday a large crowd gathered close to the same spot where the Queen had stood almost 58 years ago.
They may have been dressed in luminous yellow high viz vests rather than air force blue but the event was of equal significance in the development of Heathrow, which is now the world’s busiest international airport, transporting 70m passengers a year.
Tuesday marked the 12-month countdown to the opening of a new £2.5bn terminal building to replace the facility opened by the Queen in 1955.
A United Airlines flight from Chicago will be the first to arrive at the new Terminal 2 (T2) building - designed by Norman Foster - on June 4 2014.
The building inaugurated by the Queen was later renamed Terminal 2, despite being the airport’s first permanent facility. It was originally only designed to handle 1.2m passengers a year but it was having to cope with 8m by the time it was demolished in 2009.
The new terminal - distinguished by an impressive 50,000 square metre “wave roof” - will be capable of handling 20m passengers a year.
It is the latest stage in a wider project that will completely change the face of Heathrow over the next 15 years.
By around 2030, the airport will have been entirely rebuilt around two main terminals, two and five, which was opened in 2008 following a £4.3bn investment.
Heathrow’s old, poorly-lit buildings with low ceilings, which became associated with bad customer service and long check-in queues, will be banished to memory.
Heathrow hopes the new T2 building will take the stress out of modern-day air travel by making it easier for passengers to pass through the various stages of check-in, security and departures. As one senior Heathrow official remarked: “You will probably be able to go from your car to a glass of Champagne in the departure lounge in about 20 minutes.”
The T2 project has provided employment for 35,000 people during the construction phase and, Heathrow points out, is entirely private sector-funded.
Where possible, the airport has sourced materials from UK suppliers. The terminal’s steel frame, for example, was made by Severfield-Watson Structures in Bolton. The stone flooring has been supplied by Vetter in Manchester and Prater in Surrey. Even the cable has come from the UK, from a company called Krone in Tewksbury, Gloucestershire.
Improving efficiency at the heavily-congested Heathrow has also been a key motivation for the overhaul. As the airport saw demand increase over the decades, it expanded in a piecemeal way - to the extent that it took on a messy, inefficient lay-out, where planes often find themselves trapped in cul-de-sacs.
The vision is for the airport to resemble a “toaster rack”, with T5 (Other OTC: TFIV - news) to the west and T2 to the east, flanked to the north and south by the two runways. Satellite buildings will run parallel to the two main terminals along the centre of the airport.
The more straight-forward lay-out will allow aircraft to taxi out to the runways more easily, cutting down on delays.
In 2016, Terminal One, an outdated building next to T2, will be closed and later demolished. T2 will be further expanded on to that site so that it is roughly the same size as T5. Terminal 3 will then also be demolished.
Although Heathrow has fewer runways than rival hubs in Europe, such as Frankfurt and Amsterdam Schiphol, the new lay-out will make the UK airport more competitive, according to John Holland-Kaye, Heathrow’s development director. Unlike other European airports, Heathrow won’t often have to bus passengers out to aircraft, which puts off business travellers, particularly from wealthy markets in Asia and the Middle East.
“If we want more long-haul routes from the UK, we need to attract those business passengers,” Mr Holland-Kaye said.
Heathrow’s decision to rebuild its facilities comes at a critical time, with a debate raging over where to build more runways in the UK. Aviation experts have warned Heathrow will be forced to close if the Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, gets his way and a new hub airport is built in the Thames Estuary.
Mr Holland-Kaye said Heathrow was the only hub airport “for the foreseeable future”. He said Heathrow’s shareholders, which include several sovereign wealth funds, are happy about the development “as long as they get a good return”.
Construction will finish in November (Xetra: A0Z24E - news) and Heathrow is taking no risks prior to its opening on June 4 next year. Memories of T5’s first chaotic day are still raw, when flights had to be cancelled and the baggage system collapsed.
The opening of T2, which will eventually accommodate 26 airlines, including Lufthansa (Xetra: 823212 - news) , Virgin’s short haul airline Little Red and United, will be “phased”, while the airport will undertake six months of testing. “We can’t promise that everything will be perfect on day one,” said Mr Holland-Kaye, cautiously. “It is an incredibly difficult and complex thing to get right.”