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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.