Bank Holiday reading: the forgotten West London and Imperial Airways Empire air terminals in London

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We often run slightly eclectic pieces on Bank Holidays weekends, so I thought it was worth taking another look at the two long-forgotten but still standing air terminals which used to exist in Central London.

The West London Air Terminal on Cromwell Road

This truly fascinating article on the West London Air Terminal tells you the history of this building, which some HFP may still be old enough to have used.

If you have ever driven from Central London to Heathrow via Cromwell Road, you will have passed a huge Sainsburys supermarket on your right, close to the large Marriott hotel on your left.  There is a large block of flats built over it and an odd ramp leading up to them.

This used to be the West London Air Terminal.


To quote:

In the period after the war Heathrow was in the ascendant so the search was on for a site in West London. The airport authorities settled on an area in Kensington already occupied by another form of transport: the Cromwell Curve where the District and Circle lines came together and tube trains from Gloucester Road, High Street Kensington and Earls Court passed each other. It was decided to build a concrete raft over the train lines and construct the new terminal above them.



The idea …… was that you checked in for your flight here and then you and your luggage were transported to Heathrow in special airline buses. ….  The Cromwell Road location, a short convenient distance up the road from Gloucester Road Station meant that when the time came to fly you could put on your sheepskin coat, walk down some stairs, put your case in the coach and be on your way.

I strongly recommend reading the full piece here. This is what the building looks like today.  It is hard to imagine it was once an airport terminal.


The Imperial Airways Empire Air Terminal at Victoria

In a similar vein, I recommend this article on the history of the Empire Air Terminal.

Imperial Airways Empire Air Terminal, Victoria

Down by Victoria, in what is now the headquarters of the National Audit Office (opposite Hertz, near the bottom of Pimlico Road), Imperial Airways – one of the British Airways predecessor companies, it became BOAC in 1940 – built a similarly impressive structure in 1939.

Imperial Airways Empire Air Terminal, Victoria

At that time, Imperial Airways operated from Croydon Airport but also ran flying boats from Southampton Docks.  Your luggage would be checked in, or delivered there on your return, and you would take a direct train from Victoria Station next door to the airport or the docks.


The flying boat service ended in 1950 and Croydon Airport closed in 1959.  The terminal lived on, however, as a check-in facility for Gatwick Airport and as a coach arrival and departure point to other airports.

You can read the full story in this article here.  Take a break today and learn more about these two fascinating pieces of aviation history.

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  1. The former Empire Air Terminal now NAO is often open to the public for the London Openhouse weekend.

  2. RussellH says:

    I grew up under the normal approach to Heathrow and clearly remember the unusual one-and-a-half decker buses that used to run from the Cromwell Road terminal to Heathrow. Unique.

    The original writer of the quote
    > the Cromwell Curve where the District and Circle lines came together and
    > tube trains from Gloucester Road, High Street Kensington and Earls Court
    > passed each other.
    Is a bit confused though! Gloucester Road, High Street Kensington and Earls Court are all District line stations – High St. Ken is on the Edgware Rd branch and has no tube service. The Circle Line here is all District. The Picadilly (tube) line from Earls Court to Gloucster RD is, of course, in a tube well below the surface lines at the same stations and would have been unaffected by the building works.

    • Presumably they were using ‘tube’ to mean anything on the London Underground whereas some people use tube to just refer to the lines that go through the deep level tunnels as opposed to the larger sub surface trains.

      I used TfL Rail to Heathrow yesterday and it’s not a service I’m keen to repeat until they have their own trains operating a 15 minute service.

      Currently TfL Rail are using ex-Heathrow Connect trains running to Heathrow every 30 minutes (same as the Connect used to), they can’t use their own trains just yet until signalling issues in the Heathrow tunnel are sorted.

      Oyster and Contactless are accepted. I’d written a bit about it here

      So yesterday I got on a train. It moved a few metres and then stopped. Then it was announced there was a technical issue and we’d have to get the next train 30 minutes later. They don’t seem to have ticket acceptance with the Heathrow Express when issues like this occur. So for the moment if you’re travelling from Central London if you want to save money stick with the tube.

      Also discovered how the free transport service between terminals now works with ticket barriers at the stations. If you have an Oyster or Contactless card you can just tap in/out and as long as it’s between two Heathrow stations you will not be charged (the barriers at T5 were open when I passed through so it’s important to remember to touch in and out even if the barriers are open). If you don’t have ether card there’s machines near the platforms that are clearly marked to dispense free tickets between terminals.

      One final annoying thing. The TfL Rail ticket machines seem to be running the same software as the ticket machines in the tube stations. There was signs above these machines that say they can’t sell railcard discounted tickets. Some of the other machines can though. It’s a bit of a mess at the moment.

      It’s been a while since I’ve looked but the HEX ticket desk in T2-3 is gone and the one in T5 was closed but not sure whether it’s permanently closed or just short staffed.

      • The T5 ticket office is still there, and the CTA one is being relocated. I agree the new TFLR service is crap, plus it’s going to T4 now instead of T5 so is even worse than the Connect! I’m also unsure how sensible all those blue tickets are in an ‘environmentally responsible’ era, but hey, it’s progress. They still engage in customer-unfriendly practices such as stopping the short(er) Connect trains at the far end of the platform rather than the middle – I’ve never understood why they do this apart from to make Operations happier than Customers. They have invested in snazzy platform indicators though 😉

      • RussellH says:

        > Presumably they were using ‘tube’ to mean anything on the London
        > Underground whereas some people use tube to just refer to the lines that go
        > through the deep level tunnels as opposed to the larger sub surface trains.

        Those of us who more or less grew up on the Underground expect a site like this to get these details correct! It is like making sure that a flight is operated by an A320, not an A321…

    • David B says:

      One of those unusual buses has been preserved at the London Bus Museum near Weybridge:

  3. Russell Tait says:
    This shows a previous BEA terminal at Waterloo. Originally designed as an entrance to the Festival of Britain and housing the Rocket Restaurant.
    Both buildings were designed by my father, Gordon Tait of Burnet Tait and Ptnrs

    • Cool!

    • Doug M says:

      Very interesting. Thank you for posting. It now looks so different again from your 2015 picture.

    • Tariq says:

      Nice link, thanks. I think the low rise part of the Shell building and the plaza next to it has all been levelled now and they were constructing luxury apartment blocks last time I was in that area, probably inhabited now.

      • Doug M says:

        At the moment still just another building site, brightening the lives of Londoners each and every day as the city is sold bit by bit to anyone with money, regardless of where it comes from.

        • Be grateful that Asian investors bought all the Battersea Power Station flats as they are now reselling for substantial losses. You may be able to get an off-plan one for free because you would be taking an instant loss once the completion payment was due.

        • Doug M says:

          Good, hopefully the brakes might go on these kind of developments, I suspect not though.

    • That’s really interesting, thanks for sharing 🙂 Also interesting to see they had the Millennium Dome prototype 45 years early!!

  4. Roger1* says:

    Thanks, Rob. Yes, I remember WLAT and using a double decker BEA bus with ISTR baggage in a separate towed compartment. As for Sainsbury’s, I prefer Waitrose next to Gloucester Road Underground.

    Other London off-airport check-ins, I remember:
    – Euston station for *A airlines at LHR – I used LH and UA;
    – Victoria station for LGW – I think for Dan-Air or British United Airways (predecessor of bmi);
    – Victoria PA terminal next to coach station for Pan Am LHR-DUS

    Of course, Euston and Victoria stations are now known formally as London Euston and London Victoria.

  5. Russell Tait says: This is a youtube link showing the Duke of Edinburgh opening the terminal. There is a nice model of the building.

  6. Bagoly says:

    “you would take a direct train from Victoria Station next door to the airport”.
    To Gatwick would be direct.
    But Croydon airport is some distance from any of the Croydon Stations.
    Was there a service to Waddon Station, which is pretty close?
    Stopping, or Airport Special?

  7. William Kerr says:

    Between 1976 and 1981 I worked in the London Penta Hotel, right oppositeThe West London Air Terminal. This hotel – subsequently named the London Forum; and more recently the Holiday Inn, was at the time the largest hotel in London, ( with 914 beds over 27 floors), bar the Regent Palace Hotel in Regent St. It was part of the Penta Hotel chain spread throughout Europe and further afield, and was operated at the time by Grand Metropolitan Hotels, headquatered in Stratford Pl., on the N. side of Oxford St. The hotel was right opposite the West London Air Terminal in the Cromwell Rd., with the International Hotel just a stones throw down the street to the West also on the Cromwell Rd. South of us was The Gloucester Hotel in Harrington Gardens – also very close, where notable Wimbledon players frequently stayed.
    Penta Hotels, (Greek for five), were owned by BEA; BOAC; Swiss Air and Lufthansa. Our hotel was a favourite for airline cabin crew from all airlines including lesser known carriers like Avianca from S. America.
    Following find a link to Kensington and Chelsea archive on the subject …
    and further material on the West London Air Terminal from the same WordPress site …
    following are archive photos of the London Penta Hotel dating back forty years..sourced from the internet

    I believe that there was either a large branch of Sainsbury or Tesco on the G/F level of W. Ldn Air Terminal after it was redeveloped.

    Penta also had a smaller 500 bedroom hotel in northern Paris, (Courbevoie), adjacent to La Defense , where I transferred to in 1980/1 – it has subsequently been acquired by Accor Hotels and operates as the Hotel Mercure La Defense

    • RussellH says:

      I had a job (in Switzerland) interview at the Penta in 1978. I had travelled down from Galloway, and was told that I could claim one night’s hotel accommodation. As I was staying with my parents that night, I had no idea about London Hotel prices, except that they were way out of my budget. My boss-to-be told me that he was paying £20 a night at the Penta and he gave me a £20 note – the first I had ever had!

  8. This is so cool. I live in the Point West Building.

  9. Roger1* says:

    Yes, I remember staying at the Penta before a flight. Continental breakfast was inserted into a 2-way slot from the corridor and accessed by the guest from the inside. 😀

    I’ve also stayed there as a Forum and Holiday Inn with different breakfast arrangements.

    The Forum was a sub-brand of InterContinental. The Forums in Chicago and Frankfurt, next door and across the street, and possibly elsewhere, were subsumed into the ICs. Stayed there too.

    With my Grand Metropolitan shareholder credit card – how OT are taking this? – I got 25% off rack rates (remember them?) at these and other hotels, including US Travelodge.

  10. Prins Polo says:

    V intersting article with even more interesting comments!

  11. William Kerr says:

    Hi Roger re. your comment on The Penta, Cromwell Rd…. my first management position after training, was Bell Captain Manager servicing up to 1500 Continental Breakfasts a day in trays that were left by Bell Captain operators in the Bell Captain drinks machines that were in every room – (an honesty bar with miniatures and mixers. The system worked well considering the rather limited technology at the time and relied on each bar being regularly manually stock checked and clients being billed accordingly – (I cannot imagine how this was ever achieved with a late check-in followed by an early departure !). It was too long ago to remember – about 1977/8. If you read the comments after Rob`s earmarked article on the Penta, fro WordPress, you can see that I have been able to get in touch with a load of old colleagues from the Penta days… I ommitted the fifth airline in the Penta Group – it was Alitalia…

  12. Great article and comments- thoroughly enjoyed all the posts.

  13. William Kerr says:

    Roger – my mistake the comments relating to The Penta can be accessed from the WordPress I had mentioned on The Penta in my own link`s – not Rob`s… getting old and confused… here`s the link again and keep scrolling down…

  14. William Kerr says:

    Roger – you need to hit “Comments” at the end of the article – its not “just there” !

  15. There are some shots of WLAT in the promotional film “BEA Presents: Clear to Land” avaliable on Youtube.

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