Andrew Clark, transport correspondent
Saturday August 14, 2004
Exiled to a car park outside the airport's perimeter fence, Heathrow's community of planespotters is feeling downtrodden. Peering through binoculars over the roar of road traffic, they have to strain to pick out the registration codes of jets landing at the world's busiest international terminal.
Armed only with cameras, notepads and radios, the nation's aviation enthusiasts are the forgotten victims of a crackdown in airport security. Since the September 11 attacks, they have gradually been eased out of many of Britain's airports.
Heathrow's rooftop viewing gallery is closed on the advice of the transport department. Spotters on the airport's roads are regularly moved along by police. At Gatwick and Stansted, the airport operator BAA has instructed its security guards to question anybody carrying a camera.
The spotters are becoming increasingly frustrated. Peter Fletcher, an enthusiastic spotter from Bristol, says: "We stand here looking at aeroplanes all day - but we're not doing any harm."
He complains that the car park of Heathrow's visitors' centre, which is the only "official" spotters' area left at the airport, is inadequate: "It's not a good enough view. We can only see one of the runways.
"Obviously they've got to have security - but we notice things. We're the best form of security they can have."
A quintessentially British activity, planespotting dates back to the early days of aviation when planes were a glimpse into the lives of the rich and famous. Nowadays, the hobby has a cult following - the biggest enthusiasts' society, Air Britain, has a membership of 4,500.
But thanks to the activities of al-Qaida, aficionados complain that the golden days are over.
Ron Webb, a former accountant who travels to Heathrow to watch planes twice a week, recalls: "I used to take the kids up to Luton when they were little. There used to be a marvellous bar there with tables outside. That's all gone - it's easyJet's headquarters now."
Outsiders often fail to comprehend the hobby - a Greek judge famously struggled to understand why 12 Britons were lingering outside a military base two years ago.
Anthony Jones, of Air Britain, bemoans the police's obsession with "keeping everybody in one spot". He says: "I could be very selfish and say it's damaging our hobby but we realise that the police do face great difficulties."
In an attempt to build bridges with security officers, the aviation publisher LAAS International came up with a membership card for spotters which was endorsed by the police in March. To join, spotters have to sign a code of conduct banning the more irresponsible activities of enthusiasts.
A Metropolitan police spokesman says: "We want to enable them to do what they want to do without causing us problems. We don't want them climbing over fences or cutting little holes to stick their cameras through."
Under the scheme, the police hope to use the "eyes and ears" of spotters to identify unusual activities near airports. Spot ters claim that several of their number saw IRA terrorists setting up a mortar attack from Heathrow's perimeter road in 1994 and could have helped the police to foil the plot.
David Seex, chairman of LAAS International, says nearly 1,000 people have already signed up for membership cards: "On any one day, there are probably more enthusiasts at an airport than there are police."
Spotters point out that accommodation is possible, even in an environment of heightened alert. Manchester airport, which is run by an independent company, has built an aviation park specifically for spotters and their families.
Mr Seex believes there are more than 20,000 aviation watchers in Britain. He says: "At best, enthusiasts were only tolerated in the past. 9/11 was seen as a reason to drive them away."