London Heathrow is the largest airport in Europe. Every year more than 72 million passengers use its five terminals and all of them need fresh air. This is where the various air filters supplied by MANN+HUMMEL VOKES AIR have a decisive role to play.
The modern and highly functional facility of terminal 5 at Heathrow airport is characterized by steel, glass and concrete. When it was inaugurated in 2008, T5 was considered to be an architectural marvel and is the largest free-standing building in the UK. The undulating single-span roof installed 40 meters above the five levels of the terminal is made of metal and glass and is fixed by twenty steel girders.
The sound of voices from travelers is mixed with the noise of shoe heels and suitcases on rollers. More than 80,000 airline passengers pass daily through T5 alone. Over the whole of Heathrow airport, the amount is even double that figure. This is a big challenge for the personnel, logistics and technology, not least in view of the fact that all of these people have to be supplied with clean breathable air even to the furthest corners of the five terminals.
We have arranged to meet Tom Bromley and Wayne Young. The service technicians from MANN+HUMMEL VOKES AIR have said they are willing to take us with them around the catacombs of the airport, the places where passengers usually have no access and where they make sure that the building is supplied non-stop with filtered air. Before they take us behind the scenes, the technicians fill us in on a few important facts. They look after 916 air conditioners in four of the five airport terminals and other buildings on the site. In addition, there are three air intake systems in T5. In total they are responsible for 8,641 filters.
"Our job is to replace all of the soiled filters after one year, fit the new filters and ensure that the filter system is always handed over to the customer in perfect condition", explains Bromley. This job brings them to Heathrow several times a month and sometimes even for two weeks at a time. The two have worked together at the airport for ten years and for VOKES AIR for the last five. Their area of responsibility also includes a number of leading universities and hospitals in the area of greater London.
A security guard and two security barriers later we find ourselves in another world. We have left the glittering and polished arrival hall behind us. Instead, we meander through tight corridors to reach a narrow lift to take us down two levels. There is no layout plan to indicate where the rooms are. "It comes down to experience", chuckles Bromley. They know exactly where they have to change which filters. We then follow our two guides past control cabinets full of electronics and along neon lights to finally reach a place which looks like an enormous boiler room and has an atmosphere dominated by the background noise of ventilation systems.
Young then opens one of the many cabinet doors, and we see them: the filters. They are covered with a grey layer of dust and dirt which reminds us of an enormous vacuum cleaner filter which has not been changed for a long time. All this dirt has been retained by the filter to prevent the dirt from penetrating the air inside the terminal and ultimately the air which the passengers have to breathe in. This is because aeroplanes take off and land at Heathrow every other second and as a result contaminate the ambient air with all kinds of pollutants. There is therefore a corresponding need to filter out these harmful substances before they can enter the terminal. Large tubes suck in fresh air from the outside which is then guided past filter cabinets before it can enter the passenger areas.
In order to be able to replace the filters, Bromley and Young have to remove the frame from its guide rails with its eight filter bags and insert a frame with new filters. This can be strenuous work which also requires a lot of concentration and a clear focus on the job. Just this spring in five nights they replaced 726 filters in the three large air chambers of the terminal. And because it is important to minimize disturbance to the systems, the best option was to do the work at night. Luckily the filter change in the smaller air conditioners can be made during operation so that Bromley and Young only have to stay up all night for one week in the year.
Naturally in such a stressful situation they sometimes get into arguments, they say. But you can see the fun they have with their work. They are an experienced team and every movement and grip is made as if in automatic mode.
We move on to Terminal 1, the oldest terminal of the airport. Things here are slightly less glamourous, but the difference between the passenger area and backstage is just as extreme. To get behind the scenes we have to pass a personnel checkpoint. This is standard for all of the personnel who work at the airport and have to go behind the security controls.
"Personnel checkpoints are absolutely essential and ultimately they serve to ensure the security of airline passengers and co-workers. But they still cost us a lot of time in our daily work", says Young. Almost as much time as it takes to check the van which they use to bring the filters onto the airport area for the air conditioners. "When we bring new filters into the airport, the security check can take up to a day", says Bromley. Valuable time which they have to make good. Therefore, the two of them try to work even quicker and more conscientiously when changing the filters. "At the end of the day we are therefore proud when we have finished our work quota."
Even when they do their work well away from shiny steel and glass and most of the passengers are hardly aware of the service they provide, Young and Bromley know that they make an important contribution towards the running of the airport – they guarantee the supply of fresh air.