New Lightbulbs To Make Heathrow Way Better

Filed Under: Travel

There are great airports in Europe, hubs that serve as both a welcoming gateway and a source of national pride, brightly lit, attractively laid out, spacious and linked to cities by a quick rail and highway connection.

And then there’s London Heathrow.


I have some adjectives in mind to describe the airport, but given how lambasted I was by a pack of angry Brits for daring to blaspheme the mighty pudding course, I’m just going to leave the snark, along with my expectations for beverages served at properly chilled temperatures, Stateside.

Anyway, now we can at least tick off the “brightly lit” box when discussing Heathrow.

The Financial Times reports that Heathrow is set to cut costs dramatically by replacing its lightbulbs airport-wide.

Of course, it’s really more than about lightbulbs. Though Heathrow hasn’t gotten the official go-ahead from the British government, it’s widely expected to “win” the rights to build a third runway northwest of the existing north runway, thereby expanding its capacity by a considerable amount. This is all much to the consternation of Gatwick Airport, which wants to do the expanding and become Britain’s primary airport.

In order to expand — which is a bit more complicated than it might seem, given that there’s little empty space around the airport — they’ll need to purchase and knock down existing buildings and tunnel existing highways around the site, all at a projected cost of up to £16 billion (which I’m pretty sure is $25 billion in U.S. Dollars, though the British “billion” can mean either the American “billion” or “trillion,” since they also call an American “billion” a “thousand million,” and… sigh, before I get accused of being ANTI-BRITISH here, can anyone over on that side of the pond step in and politely clarify?).

So in order to borrow £16 billion, Heathrow needs to ensure its creditworthiness by cutting costs elsewhere, to the tune of £600 million ($931 million), and the first place officials are looking are changing out the lightbulbs to replace the existing lighting (which might politely be described as “dreary as [email protected]&!”) with energy-efficient LED bulbs.

Of course, energy efficiency is a worthy goal, and I applaud any effort to make Heathrow brighter, even if it’s just an unintended consequence of the LED bulb replacement. This speaks to a much more critical matter, which is the overall expansion of Heathrow. Heathrow’s already an airport with no centrality to it whatsoever — terminals are hardly connected to each other and are anything but cohesive.

Will building a new runway and terminal on the other side of the motorway make Heathrow more of a jumbled mess, or will increased capacity lead to less delays and a quicker experience on the ground? What do you think?

  1. Hi Nick,

    The UK when talking about costs has relented and adopted the French (or if you prefer the American) ‘Billion’ definition when it comes to money. So £16Billion is the same as £16 Thousand Million, not £16 Million Million.

  2. Despite the fact I am not on that side of the pond, I believe I have read in multiple other newspapers and independent sources that it is in fact £16 (American) Billion (Not 16

  3. Hmmm, weird. My previous comment seems to have disappeared. Anyway, we use the US definition of million, billion, etc. in the UK.

  4. Amusingly, T5 was designed without a way of changing the lightbulbs, which has proved rather embarrassing for the airport and BA []. Interestingly, (at least when it was built) T5 had the world’s largest lighting control system with 120,000 lights [].

    About billions, we’ve been using the American system for a while now (the ‘short scale’)[] but the original British ‘long scale’ still exists []. Personally, I think the long scale is more logical but it obviously hasn’t prevailed!

  5. Regarding terminal layout… if you look at long term master plans you’ll see the idea is to turn Heathrow into Atlanta. T5 is the first element in this, and the new T2 is the second step. Someday T3 will be torn down to be replaced with more midfield concourses. Not sure what will happen to T4…

  6. They should not extend Heathrow. There is more to the UK than London.

    As long as they link all the airports together quickly then transiting would become more tolerable between the airports than it is now.

    You expand LHR and you have yet more and more congestion where there is limited scope for more.

    Gatwick is an option, so is STN.

    Must admit though, do like Boris’s estuary idea….ultimately though, other airports should grow, LHR is already a messy cantankerous messy of an airport.

  7. Hi Nick

    Which what use to calculate billions can be tricky to remember ! just as tricky when it comes to UK gallons v US gallons. I think you should sit this evening and think it over with some desert; i mean pudding. Maybe with a glass of Mimosa, i mean Bucks Fizz.

  8. While it’s certainly confusing, I’d hope you could work out that they wouldn’t be spending $25 trillion on an airport!

    And we don’t call a billion a thousand million. That’s what it is of course, but I’ve never heard a single person say a thousand million pounds instead of a billion (unless clarifying that’s the type of billion they mean).

  9. Crossrail (the full thing, not the semi-Crossrail we have at the moment) is also coming to Heathrow in 2018 to replace Heathrow Connect, so journeys across and into Central London will be made a lot quicker, and more comfortable than the Tube.

  10. They should connect Heathrow and Gatwick directly with a fast train service. Would make the need to do LHR expansion redundant.

  11. “I’m just going to leave the snark, along with my expectations for beverages served at properly chilled temperatures, Stateside” – I’ll take care of that for you.

    I would rather check in and fly through Abu Ghraib than the cesspit that is LHR. I would give many thousands of examples as to why (not that anyone wouldn’t know why) but I am kind enough not to want this site to go bankrupt by using an interminable amount of server bandwidth whilst doing so.

    It should be razed and restarted from scratch. Christ, what a sewer.

  12. Hi Anon

    Actually I think Nick is right when he says “hasn’t gotten the official go-ahead from the British government”. as Heathrow has not yet won. The Davis report is only a recommendation. It is up to Cameron to decide what to do next although he will have to have a good reason not to go with the recommendation to avoid a Judicial review challenge.

  13. Ah, LHR. I was there last week where I had a delay of sorts. In one of those awful security events, a haughty matron in front of me argued and refused for five minutes to remove her shoes. So, everybody in line waited. No one from security pulled her aside to let others by; they just tried reasoning with her. It finally came down to threats. As punishment for asking if I could proceed while they argued, I had every item in my carry on removed and inspected. That was even dumber than the all too common TSA debacles. In this instance I’d have preferred fewer delays rather than “less delays” as written in the blog. The Brit’s busiest airport has plenty of shortcomings indeed.

  14. @Callum It’s quite common in financial reports to see “thousands of millions”, e.g: a column titled millions that may have rows with 245, 566 and 1,082 etc… (works also for thousands of thousands for the outliers).

    The sprawl of Heathrow annoys me. Much more a fan of one entrance and satellite buildings for gates.

  15. Does anybody know why gates are not assigned to flights until the last minute? Is it to add to the excitement of taking a trip? Is it to maximize your chance of missing your flight? Is it to force you to wander around and buy things? Maybe it’s a fitness thing, designed to make people run to the gate. I just don’t get it!

  16. @ Linda — In the case of Heathrow I believe it is indeed to encourage you to buy things, annoyingly.

  17. Transited LHR a few weeks ago and, amongst other things, had a fun experience of spending longer on a plane waiting to take off than the flight itself. Allegedly, it was due to hot weather (about +30C).

    And they seriously need to come up with better ways to connect terminals, of course.

  18. If what Linda says, and Tiffany confirms as likely true, that Heathrow play mystery games with gate assignment until the last moment, *just to get people to shop longer* that’s just disgusting.

    While duty free mazes and over-commercialisation at airports can be annoying, they do serve some amenity purpose, but airports exist to facilitate flights not shopping, and this royally screws with priorities here (no doubt contributing to otherwise avoidable delays). Simply crazy.

  19. @ Kieran — Granted, it is a guess on my part, but retail constitutes a significant percentage of revenue at Heathrow (, so it makes sense they’d want to encourage people to spend time in the shops versus sitting at the gate.

    There may be some operational reasons for not announcing the gates as well though — I just can’t think of another airport that does that, so am skeptical.

  20. I’m probably in the minority, but I’ve never really hated Heathrow at all. Yes there are queues, and yes, security can at times be a b*tch there, but that’s what you get when you’re travelling through one of the busiest airports in the world in a country where terrorism is a real threat (whether the ‘security’ is really being effective is another matter).

    Compared to similar airports in the US *ahem*JFK*ahem*, LHR isn’t bad at all. T3, T4 and T5 (have yet to visit the new T2 or the old T1) have all been decent experiences. Did not find it much slower for the number of passengers compared to even the efficient German airports.

    Obviously, if one were to compare it to SIN or HKG, then it would be a very different story, but then it wouldn’t really be a fair comparison.

  21. Well they can spend however many thousands of millions they like. If they keep the premium APD, I will be connecting and traveling elsewhere.

  22. Nick,

    Please don’t let up on the snark! It’s hilarious & you’re again spot on. Heathrow is shit. And pudding doesn’t help.

    Thankfully most of my travels are in Asia with awesome airports. And the times I’d to travel to Europe or the US, its with airlines like SQ, CX, EY, LH & AF on F that makes it at least bearable.

    Let’s not even compare LH FRA FCT or AF CDG LaPremiere Salon to what Heathrow can offer.

    For sure, Heathrow isn’t the worse but every trip through it is so damn draining. And if they’re changing the lights now, it’ll just make it worse. Damn.

  23. Snarking about LHR (the article & commenters) is a tiresome, out of date, ritual in my books.

    Terminal 5 and the recently revamped Terminal 2 are welcoming & easily transited terminal spaces. Yes, those older terminals can be cramped & dark but, in the case of T1, it was a building opened in 1969 – hardly suitable for travel in a modern age 2015.

    Personally, I’d fly through LHR any day over hubs such as ORD, ATL or DFW – often featureless & too huge to make sense of.

    You can read more about LHR’s history here:

  24. 25 billion is what they project; 25 trillion is what it will actually cost.

    @db, if you can’t figure out ATL, I have to assume you are easily confused. It’s large, but about as simply and clearly laid out as can be. One central atrium and security area, all px go the same direction, take the plane train and get off at their concourse–A-F (F is international ). Only one way off train, up the escalator to the center of the concourse, and half the gates are off to the left and half to the right, and the signage is pretty clear. (F is a little different, but even simpler.) ATL is boring, big, can be crowded, and could have better dining options and lounges (hello amex–. . .), but hard to navigate is NOT an issue for my hometown airport.

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