View Full Version : LHR: A Model of Efficiency - WSJ Article

23rd Jul 2003, 13:36
From today's Wall Street Journal:



U.K.'s Heathrow Goes to Extremes
To Ensure Not a Second Is Wasted

LONDON -- If you want to experience the epitome of the polite but oh-so-firm British attitude, spend some time in the control tower at London's Heathrow Airport.

Heathrow is an aviation miracle. It is the busiest international airport in the world, a vital global crossroads. And yet it has but two functioning runways, and is packed into a plot three miles long and one mile wide. New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport, by comparison, has more runways, more land -- and fewer flights. Heathrow handled 60% more takeoffs and landings than JFK last year.

The Federal Aviation Administration and others in the U.S. talk about U.S. airports being at capacity, but Heathrow shows just how efficient air traffic flow can be. Since it has been so overcrowded for so many years, controllers and pilots work hard to make sure no second is squandered.

Most years, new slots are squeezed into an already frantic schedule. But lately growth at Heathrow has been locked in a holding pattern. No new slots were added last winter, this summer or in next winter's schedule, according to Steve James, air-traffic services general manager at Heathrow for Britain's National Air Traffic Services Ltd.

That's bad news for the many airlines, particularly several U.S. carriers, that don't have landing rights and slots at Heathrow. The tiny airport has become the biggest single factor in international alliance competition, and the key focal point of a new round of aviation treaty negotiations between the U.S. and Europe.

AMR Corp.'s American Airlines and its partner, British Airways PLC, are constrained in their alliance because American and British Air are so dominant together at a key airport -- one not readily capable of expanding capacity to take in new U.S. trans-Atlantic competitors. Delta Air Lines, Continental Airlines, Northwest Airlines and others want access to Heathrow -- today, only American and United have that. But when regulators insisted that American and British Airways give up slots to allow new competition, in exchange for permission to cooperate on scheduling and pricing between the U.S. and the U.K., the two airlines decided the price was too high.

Looking for a long-term solution to Heathrow's capacity problem, airport operator BAA PLC is trying to build a new runway, but that will take many more years. For now, capacity is determined by how small controllers and pilots can shrink a "Heathrow minute."

A Heathrow minute, not to be confused with a "New York minute," is the time between the clearance to take off and wheels up. As soon as a controller sees daylight under the front wheel of a jet, the next plane is told to begin its roll. Each day, controllers politely bark at pilots who dawdle even the slightest before pushing throttles forward, or hitting brakes hard. So important are these seconds that the Heathrow tower is staffed with 10 controllers, plus a supervisor. There are four controllers just handling ground movements around the tiny airport, and each runway has its own controller devoted solely to watching for that glimmer of light underneath a wheel.

A reaction-time delay of just seven seconds for pilots can knock out, on average, one takeoff or landing every hour. Since Heathrow's peak day stretches over 17 hours, that's 17 fewer flights a day.

"Controllers here are quite ruthless, and for good reason," Mr. James says.

They're sticklers, too. Long ago when Pan American Airways and Trans World Airlines were the only U.S. carriers with rights to serve Heathrow, pilots knew the prim-and-proper procedures expected there. But when United and American bought the rights from Pan Am and TWA, it took some time for new pilots to learn the ropes, controllers say. Controllers here insist that a long list of instructions is read back over the radio precisely. In the U.S., while rules state the same, airline pilots nevertheless often just acknowledge instructions with, "Roger."

"We'd make them repeat it every time," Mr. James says. "They learned."

Alas, pilot reaction times have gotten a bit slower lately, and Heathrow plans a campaign to educate airline pilots on the importance of getting in position and being ready to go the instant orders are given, and in getting off a runway as soon as possible after landing.

Once off the runway, the airport is no less congested. Taxiways are incredibly tight, though the flow of planes is aided by a unique lighting system than allows controllers to light a path for planes -- just follow the newly illuminated green lines. If controllers don't want the plane to take a certain turn, a bar of red lights can be lit to block the path.

What's more, the airport had one of the first ground radar systems to track planes on a radarscope when they were on the ground. "It was pinched off a ship years ago," Mr. James says. In November 2002, Heathrow got its first-in-the-world modern ground-radar tracking system that picks up planes as soon as they push back from the gate. Those gates, by the way, have a utilization rate of 99%. Small delays can quickly cascade into gridlock.

In hopes of adding to capacity, the British are doing extensive research on wake vortex effects on planes -- vortices of wind, like small tornadoes, that can upset smaller planes that fly into them -- as are their counterparts here at the FAA. If controllers can fine-tune regulations governing how much distance is needed between planes, they may be able to squeeze in more flights. Work is underway right now in Britain to see if the large wide-body grouping of planes, all of which get the same separation, can be sliced a bit finer. If a Boeing 747 jumbo jet isn't affected by the wake of a smaller Boeing 767, controllers may be able to routinely have 747s follow 767s a bit closer, and get more planes into the airport each day.

"I have to get that through the safety regulators, but it could add another movement per hour here," Mr. James said.

One interesting threat to such capacity increases, by the way, is the new Airbus A380 super-jumbo jet. Already, taxiways are being widened at Heathrow to accommodate the 555-passenger whale, which is scheduled to enter service in 2006. Airbus has said that the A380 wake vortex will be no bigger or more powerful than a 747's wake. But since a plane's wake vortex is in part determined by weight, some in aviation are skeptical. If the A380 turns out to have a larger wake vortex, forcing greater separation at airports like Heathrow, then any capacity advantage to having more than 500 people on a single plane could disappear.

"If we have to add even one mile [separation], then whatever gain is lost," said Mr. James.

In any environment where capacity is constrained, whether it be airports or classrooms or hospitals or factories, you have to make the most of what you have. Heathrow does that, and shows that there's a lot more capacity than you might think in the existing runways of the U.S., without pouring more concrete.

23rd Jul 2003, 14:21
There are four controllers just handling ground movements around the tiny airport


23rd Jul 2003, 15:58
Once again, journalists got it wrong !

LHR is not the "busiest international airport".


23rd Jul 2003, 16:08
Depends how you measure it. By the number of international passengers it is the busiest, I believe.

Point Seven
24th Jul 2003, 03:45
Rock on!!:cool:

About time those guys and gals in the tower got some reocognition. However, what this report fails to highlight is the vital, but fantastic jobs done by the Heathrow approach controllers packing them in all day long, and the TMA controllers catching jets all day long and somehow keeping them all apart.

And the pilots, baggage handlers, check in staff(sometimes;) ), tug drivers, support staff....the list goes on.

Heathrow has copped some flak on some other threads but like the report says all the other big airports have loads more room and two more runways at least. The reason it works is because everyone knows their job and does it to the best of their abilities. However, this maxing out leads to huge delays if one element fails. Anwers to this anyone?


24th Jul 2003, 03:55
what a load...

while i have had the very best of controlling into and out of EGLL, particularly if there is a problem,busy???

key words,"busiest international airport"....

like in the states, the 20 widebody arrivals just now don,t rate, they are merely "domestic"...

anybody been to KORD recently???

reality please...

Point Seven
24th Jul 2003, 05:53

No one is disputing actual aircraft numbers but, as Gonzo correctly states, passenger wise Heathrow is right up there.

And I reiterate, how many runways and GMC controllers has O'Hare got? More than us, so pro rata we do more. So what if we're giving ourselves a pat on the back. It's people like you that make us feel the need to. You reckon you could do EGLL tower or App let me know, I can get you a go on both.


24th Jul 2003, 06:05
We can only work with what we're given, and we try hard (well, most of us do......).

If anyone's not happy with the service, or has suggestions for improvements, then I'm sure we could arrange a visit to the tower for you to point out our shortcomings! ;) (Just like a certain representative from a rather large LHR-based airline did a while back, eh P7? :yuk: )

24th Jul 2003, 06:27

Notice that it has been catergorised - busiest INTERNATIONAL airport. Heathrow has had that crown for at least the last decade. There is no other airport in the world that comes close to having the same amount of INTERNATIONAL traffic as Heathrow airport.

Of course the busiest overall airport in the world would be in the USA with it's large domestic system.

24th Jul 2003, 19:02
Ahhh yes i have fond memories of the aforementioned "person" visiting the tower. Whilst i was working hard with the new stand numbers on GMC he questioned our need for flow control as it was delaying the planes from his airline. Let me see you try this boy!

Back to the topic, we rock! as yellow snow asked yesterday from a certain LHR based carrier ;)

24th Jul 2003, 22:32
What's the definition of BUSIEST?

Number of Landings+Take-offs
_________________________ = Busy Quotient
Number of Runways

LGW would come close........

24th Jul 2003, 23:50
I entirely agree that the controllers are very good at getting the aircraft on the ground......thanks! BUT.......it would be very nice if we had somewhere to park on arrival.

After a 12 hour long haul there is nothing quite as much fun as 45+ minutes in Block 33 waiting for a damn gate.

25th Jul 2003, 04:09

Believe me, we don't like it either!

25th Jul 2003, 05:00
Sweeper.....what's your malfunction?????

Or is it just that when the great guys and gals in LHR tower are given a little recognition for what they do, you feel a little left out?

I can assure you, if something like the report that started the thread was posted about KORD or KLAX, we wouldn't be sitting here saying "what a load".

Nice attitude...................

25th Jul 2003, 05:03
He plugged in with me for twenty minutes or so on GMC1.....you could tell he didn't have a clue what was going on.

Not sure how he could back up his remarks.

25th Jul 2003, 05:14
Hey Gonzo,
When I plug in with you on GMC I don't know what's going on either!
Your future LCE.....possibly!

25th Jul 2003, 05:45
ATCO 2, knew that ages ago!

And I didn't say that I knew what was going on, either, did I????????????


25th Jul 2003, 06:06
i still say key words are busiest international airport

you are an island,so most flights will have to be international...

you are one of the biggest worldwide finacial centres...

the number of movements you handle, you handle very well..

but to increase numbers,ah can,t do that,see we have no new runways,so

a relatively small very efficent and safe airport, minimum required to maintain certification???

25th Jul 2003, 16:10
you could tell he didn't have a clue what was going on

what about life in general??

minimum required to maintain certification???


25th Jul 2003, 16:30

what about life in general??

LOL, now there's a good question!

26th Jul 2003, 17:04
Minumum requirement to maintain certification......Huh?? OK, I'm not the sharpest tool in the box (and some people would say just a tool), but what the hell are you on about?

Something came to mind, and please if anybody can fill the gaps, feel very free. While there has been an over-ruling in the old "night-flight" debarcle, we still are curfewed between 2300 and 0600. So, I guess if you lifted the curfew, more jets could use us? What are the night limitations on other places?

26th Jul 2003, 23:35
but to increase numbers,ah can,t do that,see we have no new runways,so

Would it be possible to have this in English Sweeper ?


28th Jul 2003, 14:24
In my view,london ATC is the best in the world,particularly one
en route controller who sounds as though he is in his smoking jacket with slippers on and wearing a cravatte,so calm and collected and speaks slowly enough for everyone to understand.
The worst in the developed world are the americans sitting there with caps on the wrong way chewing gum,rattling away as if they are auctioneers and working out how to stuff up the next " heavy". Australia isnt far behind the US,lack of judgement and inclined to panic if there are 2 aircraft in the air approaching
sydney simultaneously.Qantas are of course given the shortest track,and this applies to Bangkok and singapore controllers.
The french? enough said about them!

250 kts
29th Jul 2003, 04:32
thanks frangatang,

I didn't realise you had a webcam positioned on my sectors although it mustn't be wide angled or you'd see that most of the time I also have my feet up on the sector and wear a bow tie rather than a crevatte.;) ;)

30th Jul 2003, 23:56
Efficiency depends on your persepctive.

As a regular domestic commuter, the effect of running at 99% capacity is significant delays are the norm on most domestic routes.

try visiting the exec lounge on a typical workday evening at around 1700 and ask the punters if they think its efficient?