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Aviation: Heathrow for the avgeek


Watching aircraft coming and going at one of the world's busiest airports became something of a challenge due to ever-evolving security threats. But Leo Martin believes the approach to enthusiasts are improving at London Heathrow, and reviews the changes that have been made.

Freedom versus security

Some people express themselves through painting or viewing works of art, others chose music, while many also find photography gives them freedom to be creative. The aviation community passion is aircraft. It is a community spans the world from London to Paris, Amsterdam, Frankfurt, Los Angeles, Tokyo and even Sydney. All of them are connected Heathrow Airport by direct flights.

Over the years has become hugely important for commercial aviation - the busiest airport in the UK, the biggest international hub in Europe, and the second busiest international hub in the world. Heathrow now handles a vast array of airlines and has a huge waiting list for slots due to its limited capacity. Along with the growth and popularity have come threats though. Terrorists intent on causing chaos or mass destruction target airlines and airports, and Heathrow is a big target.

This has created challenges for the authorities which understandably mean the facilities have been covered in cotton wool and surrounded by barbed wire to reduce the risk of a deadly attack. The negative impact of this is realised not just the eyesore of tall fences though - it also had adverse consequences for an innocent party; the plane spotting community.

Safety and security first

Safety and security are, quite understandably, right at the top of Heathrow’s priority list as the threat of a terrorist attack remains high. This means that the art of aviation photography is always at significantly risk of being constrained or stopped. And yet elsewhere, at Manchester International for example, the airport authority has gone to great lengths to create a friendly environment that balances security with creating space for the aptly named AvGeeks, as enthusiasts are sometimes called. The facilities include a dedicated viewing park with raised platforms, paths around the perimeter, and even a museum which has a Concorde on display.

At Heathrow it feels at though the scales are tipped firmly in favour of security, and everything else suffers as a consequence. A few improvements have been made in recent years though. An indoor viewing deck has been opened in Terminal 4 but it pales in comparison to the facilities on offer at Manchester, primarily because it is only accessible to passengers who have gone through security. It is little used because most travellers want to eat, drink or spend time in the shops and have only limited time available before boarding their flight.

Another area with a small grandstand is available adjacent to the Heathrow Academy on the northern perimeter but it offers only limited views and trees, fences and lamp posts put paid to photography.

Myrtle Avenue is popular with aircraft watchers and families.

Other areas around the airport are still mainly off-limits to enthusiasts and many chose to spend their time in a small grass public recreation area at the end of Myrtle Avenue on the south side of the airfield.

Changing world - changing attitudes

I have been a keen aviation enthusiast since a young age, and have been spending time at Heathrow since 2015. Despite the challenges posed by security I have noticed a change for the good at the airport . I used to be approached for having a camera out on a grass verge beyond the perimeter, but I am now more often able to take photos freely and not be questioned about my activities.

The fences are still there, but acceptance of aviation enthusiasts is growing.

In the recent years the airport has launched an initiative to appeal to the many fans of the airport. It has created the YourHeathrow website (your.heathrow.com), which focuses on promoting the aviation community. It also ensure that enthusiasts know that the airport supports their efforts, rather than condemns them. YourHeathrow has an Avgeek of the Month feature that selects aviation enthusiasts and their stories, which are promote online and through the airport's social media channels. The very popular TV documentary series Heathrow: Britain's Busiest Airport, which has run for four seasons with another promised this year, promotes the facility to the local and enthusiast communities in ways that other airports can only dream of.

If further evidence is needed, the airport even publishes Tips for photographing and spotting at Heathrow on the YourHeathrow website. This page also promotes Heathrow Airport Watch, a scheme run by the MET Police that provides members (mainly enthusiasts) a photo identity card and lanyard that enables them to be easily identified by police and security teams.

I had almost got to a point of giving up visiting Heathrow for fear of being put in a police cell. Despite the slightly uncertain start to my aviation photography career, I do believe the airport is turning. Although there is still a long road ahead, there has been distinct improvement in the authority's attitude towards the enthusiasts' community. Progress is being made in a world that is often reluctant to change. Its a dream, but maybe when Terminal Six and new third runway are complete they will include some dedicated facilities?

Leo Martin

Text © Leo Martin. Photos © Kevan James.

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