Thursday, 4 October 2007


While the UK's principal airport operator BAA is scarcely deserving of sympathy over its response to last year's sudden security panic, it has become the target for much misplaced critcism.

Today's Guardian, for example, carries a leader claiming that security queues have "often" stretched out of the terminal almost as far as the car park. Anyone who uses BAA's airports regularly will recognise that as gross exagerration. Far from being a frequent occurrence it has happened rarely.

The same editorial suggests BAA profits from such delays because travellers spend more in airport shops. Leaving aside the inconvenient fact that tax and duty free shops are beyond the security checks in question, how do you go shopping while waiting in a security queue? And while it is true that tighter security necessitates earlier check in, that requirement is hardly exclusive to BAA or even UK airports.

The currrent barrage directed at the company has been prompted mainly by Heathrow, an airport laid out for an earlier era, whose successive managements have struggled to keep pace with demand. The fact that it is Spanish owned makes not one iota of difference to the quality of service. Much the same criticisms were hurled at its UK owners.

Sometimes those critics, concerned that airports are nationally important - and the first encounter many visitors have when they come here - seem to teeter on the brink of pushing for renationalisation. Yet if that were to become a realistic proposition they would surely throw up their hands in horror. Heaven forbid, you can almost hear them cry. That being their likely reaction, surely they should accept the realities of private ownership.

One of those realities is that splitting up BAA's near monopoly in London might bring a sprinkling of cosmetic enhancements but would not produce major improvements. True competition is possible only when there is adequate capacity - and capacity is currently inadequate. The prospect of such competition is made more distant by the fact that the dominant carrier, BA, will always need to concentrate most of its services at one airport. And unless someone resurrects the idea of an all new airport, off shore in the Thames Estuary maybe, that airport will always be Heathrow.

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