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Stansted; From Military Airfield To Major UK Airport

Jul 22, 2008
London Stansted, now the fourth largest airport in the UK has not always been a major airport with services such as rail links, car hire desks, shops and restaurants. Located in the sleepy region of Uttlesford in northern Essex it is now a hub for many low cost European airlines flying to over one hundred and seventy different destinations. Handling over twenty two million passengers annually Stansted is currently the third busiest airport in the UK. But what is the history of his airport? How has it developed from a minor airfield to one of the predominant airports in the country?

Like many of the airports in the UK Stansted started its life as a military airfield. During World War II the site was used by both the Royal Air Force and the United States military operating under the name of Stansted Airfield; so called because of the close by town of Stansted Mountfitchet. It was mainly used by the USAAF as a bomber airfield from 1942 onwards; American sorties being flown from the base throughout the war. The original site was constructed by American military engineers although today the modern terminal full of car hire desks, shops, bars and restaurants would be unrecognisable to these original builders.

The force who used the airport throughout the war years was the 344th Bombardment Group. Predominately flying B-26 bombers the pilots used Stansted as a base to conduct operations in France, Belgium and the Netherlands bombing sites such as airfields, depots and submarine shelters. The airport was also used during the Normandy landings with members of the 344th attacking the coastal batteries around the town of Cherbourg. The 344th also played a vital role in bombing bridges to limit the German army's withdrawal through the Falaise gap. Despite a large development effort, some of the original huts still remain on the site although they are no longer used for military purposes.

In the post war period Stansted was used as a POW camp and a storage depot for the RAF. It was not until 1966 that the airport began civilian operations after being purchased by BAA. During the interim however it was used as a training school for civil pilots. From this point onwards Stansted played an important role in the growth of the package holiday industry as airlines could fly from Stansted for smaller fees than those charged at comparable airports such as Gatwick and Heathrow. At this stage the British government earmarked Stansted for further development as London's third major airport.

In the eighties these development plans came into fruition with a major construction effort for a new terminal. The modern design by Sir Norman Foster was completed in 1991 and is now filled with a host of amenities such as a coach station, integral train station and car hire desks. The terminal was also expanded in the next decade to cope with the ever-growing passenger numbers. Despite efforts to create transatlantic routes, Stansted remains an airport that almost solely flies to Europe and parts of the Middle East.

Stansted has not forgotten its military heritage however. Due to the excess space at the site it is the preferred choice of airport for any plane that has been hijacked. As the planes can be kept far from the terminal building hijackers have limited chances of escape. The site has played host to a variety of hijack situations; the most recent being in February 2000 where a hijacked Ariana Afghan Airlines plane was involved in a four day stand off with members of the special forces. The incident ended peacefully however with violence being avoided and the 150 passengers being freed without injury.

Today Stansted remains as one of the most popular airports in the UK. Further development plans include a second runway, although this is being protested by local pressure groups. The amenities at the airport include a bureau de change, shops, restaurants and car hire provisions. From its humble beginnings the site continues to develop as a modern gateway to Europe and beyond.
About the Author
Air travel expert Thomas Pretty looks into how car hire Stansted airport provisions have been integral to the site's development.
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