Coffee House

Why the plan for Heathrow Hub is bananas

12 July 2013

5:01 PM

12 July 2013

5:01 PM

Heathrow wants to expand. Originally this was to be done by building a third or even fourth runway north of, and parallel to, the existing runways. The fourth runway would be fitted in by reducing slightly the horizontal separation between runways. The separation at Heathrow is generous, or very generous compared to Los Angeles or San Francisco.

Now, apparently, Heathrow wants to expand by building one or two runways facing southwest. When LHR was built it had not only the two remaining west facing runways, but also two facing south west (and indeed also two facing north west). These other runways have been consumed by taxiways and terminals, but one southwest facing runway called 23L was in use until fairly recently. Runways are named by their magnetic direction reduced to two significant figures. The L or R suffix is added where there are parallel runways. So rebuilding a south west facing runway would appear to be reasonable.

We now have a group called Heathrow Hub, which reasonably seeks to expand Heathrow, but has also come up with a ‘double length’ idea, which Jock Lowe explained on Coffee House earlier this week.

The innovative idea of building double length runways is innovative for a reason. It is simply bananas. No one else in the world has ever considered such a scheme. Why? Because it is fundamentally mad and dangerous.


Heathrow has several (average three?) ‘go-arounds’ per day; i.e. the landing aircraft aborts its landing just before it lands. This could be for any number of reasons – too high, too low, runway occupied, can’t see the runway, technical fault and so on.

With this double length runway, this aircraft which ‘goes around’ will be a missile pointing directly at the aircraft taking off in front of it, with the obvious serious danger of catastrophe.

OK, you can tell me that the landing aircraft should be planned to turn to the right (or was it left?) to avoid the imminent collision, but have you tried this with 400 tons of aircraft and 400 passengers at 200 miles an hour, in the fog and cloud, after a 12 hour flight in the dark, while raising the undercarriage, and moving the flaps, in a foreign language, doing something you have not done for real for four years… or maybe ever?

The concept has been drawn up by a desk pilot, with little flying experience. It reminds me of staying in a beachside hotel in Queensland. When I asked the proprietor when someone was last attacked by a shark, she replied, ‘Gosh, nay, that was over 30 years ago. No one has been so stupid as to swim there’.

As they say, ‘there are bold pilots, and old pilots, but no old, bold pilots’.

Come down my road and I will show you the traffic lights that have been pushed over, the wall that has been demolished, the fence that has been bent, all by errant cars. That sort of thing should obviously never happen, but it does. Aviation is safe because stupid ideas like this never see the light of day.

Brian Swift retired after 34 years as a British Airways Captain from Trident, TriStars, and Boeing 737, 757, 767 and 747s. 

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Show comments
  • Katie John

    Just as a point of information: Captain Jock Lowe flew Concorde for 27 years, and finally became Chief Concorde Pilot for British Airways.

  • brian swift

    Thanks to Tim Knox for commenting, and naturally we welcome this debate, however please appreciate that a report can be bananas without ascribing the same qualities, as he has done, to its authors. Perhaps he can appreciate there is a difference between theory and practice, and we are attempting to point out the difference, and that this plan while possibly being theoretically correct is eroding the safety margins of aviation.

    He will have read recently about a 787 catching fire, on the ground at LHR, of course that should not happen, but it did. He will have read recently about the 777 landing short at San Francisco, and he will probably remember British Airways own 777 landing short at 27L at Heathrow. Those incidents should not have happened, but they did. However, landing short would not be problem with this double length runway, but landing long, with consequential runway overrun certainly would be.

    These landing overrun incidents are really quite common. It is difficult to get data, but Boeing produce a document for performance related incidents. This shows, for example, that for just one aircraft type, Boeing 737s, there have been five landing runway overruns so far in 2013.
    15 July in Kiev, Ukraine,
    15 June in Salonika, Greece,
    19 April in Columbus, Ohio USA,
    12 March in Katowice, Poland
    28 January in Gold Coast Australia

    Often these overrunning aircraft stop within the prescribed safe area. Many do not; 187 dead in Sao Paulo with an Airbus 320. Do you really think it wise to have a double length runway?

    I have seen the aftermath of three overruns, and the first at 27L at Heathrow was still in the safe area. It was a Pan-Am 707, and I remember my Captain apologizing to the passengers for the inevitable delay, and including the memorable line “Ladies and Gentlemen, on the right you can indeed see Pan American, “The World’s Most Experienced Airline”, having another one of their experiences”

    The second one that I saw was Swissair who overran the runway at Athens, did not stop in the safety area, and killed 12 people. The third was a Qantas 747 at Bangkok. Again this did not stop in the safety area, and no-one was killed. The aircraft allegedly cost 150m$ to repair, which was widely regarded as being uneconomic, but by repairing it, Qantas could retain there reputation for never having had a crash, resulting in the loss of an aircraft hull.

    The Centre for Policy Studies is a think tank based co-founded by Margaret Thatcher. Perhaps if she were around today, she would suggest they get out more, and spend less time in an office in SW1. That is why this report is worthy of the old handbag.

  • Tim Knox

    It is always amusing to see someone try to dismiss an argument by resorting to personal abuse or by allegations of insanity.

    So I am grateful to Brian Swift for this attempt to dismiss the rather brilliant plan for Heathrow which the Centre for Policy Studies (of which I am the Director) published last week.

    And I would be even more grateful to him if he could answer a couple of
    questions. First, he says that “the concept has been drawn up by a desk pilot,
    with little flying experience”. Well, one of the co-authors of our report is
    Captain Jock Lowe who was Concorde’s longest serving pilot, with 25
    years experience in the top pilot’s job in British Airways. And who was it
    who had responsibility for the safety of all BA aircraft for some of the time
    when Captain Swift was a pilot? Yes, Captain Jock Lowe again. So how many more years would Captain Swift like Jock to have flown?

    Second, he says that our plan is “bananas” as well as “fundamentally mad and dangerous”. It seems quite strange to me to dismiss the ideas of the former British Airways General Manager Operations Control, who had responsibility for the day to day operation of the British Airways fleet of 300 aircraft worldwide, was Flight Operations Director and Chief Pilot of British Airways and Chairman of the UK Flight Operations Director Group. We would be delighted to debate this point more fully with Mr Swift. But he should also be aware that we would indeed be “fundamentally mad” if the technical and safety questions he raises have not been fully explored already. The procedures comply with all regulatory requirements and the “go around procedure” he condemns are similar to those at many other international airports (such as Manchester). So would Captain Swift like to discuss this more fully with the technical bods?

  • paulus

    Its an absolute mess, no one envisaged the amount of traffic going thru airports when they were first built, Heathrow and Gatwick are part of major conurbations and as such they are a nuisance.

    I like the Idea floated by Boris a dedicated airport and city servicing it, we are wasting money shuttling people from London to Birmingham whereas we should make the commute to Rio, Dehli, and beijing.

    We must put our country at the fore front of international travel and communications. With political will it can be achieved. The men of yonder year laid a keel for the Royal Navy every week, that was the Navy that swept the seas, brought a bounty to our shores and brought absolute dominance of the earth to this little Island. Vision and will. We can do it we can lay the keel in this generation that will bring dominance and riches to our shores.

  • jazz606

    “………stupid ideas like this
    never see the light of day…….”

    I would like to think not…….??

  • HookesLaw

    ‘Runways are named by their magnetic direction reduced to two significant figures.’ – Well you learn something new every day.

  • Bluesman_1

    “Come down my road and I will show you the traffic lights that have been
    pushed over, the wall that has been demolished, the fence that has been
    bent, all by errant cars. That sort of thing should obviously never
    happen, but it does. Aviation is safe because stupid ideas like this
    never see the light of day.”

    Absolutely bloody right.