Security safety briefing sheet



CHATR: Heathrow safety: ‘An accident waiting to happen’

Following official evidence that the risk of a crash would be almost doubled Deborah Cadbury, Head of Media Relations for CHATR, examines the implications of expanding Heathrow for West London’s safety.


There was a very big elephant in the room the whole time the Airports Commission was in session, yet they seemed to pretend it wasn’t there.  How could it be that safety wasn’t overtly one of the eight key criteria upon which Davies based his report and his final recommendations?   These so-called ‘Sift criteria categories’ were: ‘Strategic Fit’, ‘Economy’, ‘Surface Access’, ‘Environment’, ‘People’, ‘Cost’, ‘Delivery’, and ‘Operational Viability’. 

Within ‘Operational Viability’, why devote only three paragraphs to the subject of safety and security in a 344 page final report, concluding as in 12.25 below? 

12.25 Following a review of consultation responses the Commission asked the Health and Safety Laboratory to review the scale of increase in crash risk associated with each of the schemes.  The review concluded “that the changes to the background crash rate are minimal, regardless of whether or not expansion takes place at the airports.”


Nicholas Cecil of The Evening Standard unearthed the Health and Safety Laboratory (HSL) research and found that the Airports Commission had suppressed its key finding.  Namely that a third runway at Heathrow could increase the likelihood of a plane crashing on take-off or landing by up to 60 per cent within 10km (6.2 miles) from the airport.  Communities within this distance include Hounslow, Feltham, and Twickenham to the east and Windsor to the west, and possibly even Windsor Castle and Richmond.

The HSL research predicted the likelihood of a crash at a three-runway Heathrow would be around one every 16 years, compared to roughly one in every 26 years without expansion.  But let’s consider the odds.  On Thursday, 17 January 2008 British Airways flight BA038 from Beijing crash landed short of the runway at Heathrow.  Thankfully 136 passengers and 16 crew escaped alive and only eighteen people were taken to hospital with minor injuries.  The causes of that accident were technical, but a steady stream of incidents at Heathrow have been terrorism-related.


  • On 6 September 1970, El Al Flight 219 experienced an attempted hijack by two PFLP members. One hijacker was killed and the other was subdued as the plane made an emergency landing at Heathrow Airport.
  • On 19 May 1974, the IRA planted a series of bombs in the Terminal 1 car park. Two people were injured by the explosions.
  • On 17 April 1986, Semtex explosives were found in the bag of a pregnant woman attempting to board an El Al flight. The explosives had been given to her by her Jordanian boyfriend and father of her unborn child.
  • On 21 December 1988, Pan Am Flight 103 from Heathrow to New York/JFK was blown up over Lockerbie, Scotland, killing all 259 onboard and 11 other people on the ground.
  • In 1994, over a six-day period, Heathrow was targeted three times (8, 10, and 13 March) by the IRA, which fired 12 mortars. Much disruption was caused when areas of the airport were closed over the period. The gravity of the incident was heightened by the fact that the Queen was being flown back to Heathrow by the RAF on 10 March.
  • In February 2003, the British Army was deployed to Heathrow along with 1,000 police officers in response to intelligence reports suggesting that al-Qaeda terrorists might launch surface-to-air missile attacks at British or American airliners.
  • On 10 August 2006, the airport became the focus of changes in security protocol, following the revelation of a supposed al-Qaeda terrorist plot.  New security rules were put in force immediately, causing additional restrictions in regards to carrying liquids onto flights.

Sources: Wikipedia and BBC


In addition to these terrorist-related incidents there have been other breaches of security at Heathrow by activist protest groups Greenpeace and Plane Stupid.   What these have all demonstrated is that Heathrow airport is very hard to defend against determined interlopers whether of an altruistic or malevolent kind.   It’s also clear that Heathrow is an iconic target that is more likely than many other UK sites to attract the attentions of terrorists seeking to pull off a spectacular which will generate headlines globally.

Given the strength of this evidence, the Airports Commission’s failure to address the safety issue raises two possibilities:

  1. Did the Commission, comprised of a group of ostensibly clever people, actually lack common sense?
  2. Were they warned off the topic by the Government because it, the MOD, and the secret services didn’t want to frighten us? 

Regarding the former, it’s obvious to anyone living here that having an endless stream of airplanes flying over the densely populated city of London is already a serious safety risk.  And it seems self-evident that if a third runway were to be built, that risk would increase significantly.


Regarding the latter, well, we are frightened.    At our community meeting at St. Michael & All Angels in November 2015, concerns about security were raised as they were again with increased emphasis at last week’s Bedford Park Society AGM.  One reason is that there have been a worrying number of terrorist-related disasters in recent years and the loss of passengers and crew has been tragic. 

Date Plane Deaths Location
8th March 2014 Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 239 South China Sea
17th July 2014 Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 298 Ukraine
31st October 2015 Metrojet Flight 9268 224 Egypt
2nd February 2016 Daallo Airlines Flight 159 1 Somalia


These tragedies have generally occurred away from heavily populated built-up areas such as London.  But should a crash happen on the way to Heathrow, the consequences would be catastrophic.   9/11 New York resulted in the loss of 2,996 lives and damage estimated at least $10 billion in property and infrastructure, and cost of $3 trillion in total.  Surely it’s crazy to increase what’s already a serious risk by adding a third runway at Heathrow?


Meanwhile two new threats have grown up alarmingly quickly: drones and lasers.  According to the UK Airprox Board, between July 2014 and July 2015, there were twelve near-miss incidents involving drones and aircraft.  From April to October 2015 twenty-three were investigated. According to the U.K. Civil Aviation Authority, there have been about 4-5 laser incidents reported each day on average, during the period from January 2011 to late November 2015.
Heathrow had the most incidents with 48 in the first half of the year and 168 in total for 2014. 
In November 2015 the British Airline Pilots’ Association (BALPA) survey of its members revealed that 50% had reported a laser/aircraft incident during the period from November 2014 to November 2015. 

The Government and regulators are taking action on drones and lasers, but the vulnerability of Heathrow to these new risk factors is self-evident sited as it is so close to a major conurbation where the likes of Amazon and Google will soon be delivering thousands of parcels weekly and a massive population can harbor a tiny number of malcontents, mischief-makers, and murderers, just one of whom could cause a devastating air crash.


Being a bit superstitious I worry that even thinking these thoughts, let alone sharing them in a newspaper article, is tempting fate.  Heaven forbid.  But I feel compelled to share my concerns, which I believe are justified by the statistics.  Please join me and CHATR in opposing the proposed third runway at Heathrow.  It’s already an accident waiting to happen so why make it more likely?

Deborah Cadbury is Head of Media Relations for CHATR and a founder member.

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