This article was first published in the summer of 2019 as part of a 100 part series on the history of British Airways and its predecessor airlines, Imperial Airways, BOAC and BEA. You can browse the full series of 100 stories in numerical order, by theme or by decade.
Before airports had direct public transport links, airlines used to provide centrally located air terminals where passengers could check-in their luggage and then be bussed passengers to the airport.
The first British European Airways terminal was Kensington Air Station which opened in 1948. Prior to that BEA used BOAC’s Victoria Air Terminal to transport passengers to Northolt.
The Waterloo Air Terminal
BEA opened the Waterloo Air Terminal on 19 May 1953.
It was located at 18 York Road on the South Bank of the Thames, facing London Waterloo railway station. The structure had originally been constructed for the 1951 Festival of Britain celebration and was intended to be a temporary location.
The terminal was also used by Aer Lingus, Air France, Iceland Airways, Sabena, SAS and Swissair. It was designed to handle 60 flights an hour and 16,000 passengers a day. There were also ambitions to add a helicopter station nearby. However, this did not come to fruition.
The terminal proved to have a very short life at it was demolished in 1957 to make way for the construction of new Shell Headquarters.
The West London Air Terminal
The first West London Air Terminal opened on Cromwell Road on 6 October 1957 as a temporary structure.
Its location was chosen because of its proximity to the Circle, District and Piccadilly Lines and the M4 motorway.
It was a relatively modest two storey structure. A new permanent structure, constructed at a cost of £5m, was officially opened by the Duke of Edinburgh on 6 November 1963.
It was an impressive structure both architecturally and for its on site facilities. Designed to handle 4.5m passengers a year, the construction was complicated by the fact that it was built 25ft below ground between branches of the Circle and District lines. It had to be constructed without disturbing the operation of London Underground during the day. Access roads had to be built out over the Tube lines on suspended concrete rafts.
The main concourse was located on the upper levels of the structure which was connected to an elevated roadway which could be reached by spiral ramps at either end of the building.
The aim was to provide passengers with all the facilities they would expect of an airport. It featured an expansive check-in area with 23 desks, a licensed snack-bar and restaurant, duty-free shops, banking facilities and a double height open plan departure lounge. The building also accommodated offices for BEA staff on its upper floors. It even had its own telephone exchange capable of handling 10,000 calls a day for BEA reservations staff.
BEA decided to end check-in facilities at the West London Air Terminal from 1974. This was prompted by the opening of London Heathrow Terminal 1 in 1969 and the planned extension of the Piccadilly Line to Heathrow. The terminal continued to serve as a coach station for Heathrow before closing in 1979.
BA sold the West London Air Terminal in the 1980s. A branch of Sainsbury’s supermarket was constructed on the site. It’s certainly not a building that will be remembered with affection for its architectural merit.
The concept of centrally located check-in facilities did live on as BA used to offer check-in desks at Paddington and Victoria stations. However, these were withdrawn. Whilst downtown check-in facilities are offered at airports such as Hong Kong, there are no such facilities in London.