ISSUED: WEDNESDAY 20th AUGUST 2008
Across the political spectrum there is widespread agreement that BAA-owned airports, with their long queues, lack of seats and tacky, shopping mall atmosphere, are a national disgrace.
But the solution is not to break up BAA's monopoly and introduce 'more competition' as The Competition Commission recommends. The answer is to take BAA back into public ownership, and for the company to be run as a not-for-profit enterprise.
Britain is the only country in Europe that has been foolish enough to privatise its major international airports. It is no coincidence that Manchester Airport, which has not been privatised, regularly comes out highest in surveys of customer satisfaction was voted Britain’s Best Regional Airport in 2007.
Sir Terence Conran, who designed Terminal One at Heathrow and the North Terminal in the 1960s, has contrasted the brief he received from the owners of the airports back then - the British state - with the instructions Lord (Richard) Rogers, the architect of Terminal 5, got from BAA.
Conran was told to put in as many seats as possible, with the priority being to make passengers 'relax and feel at ease'. At Terminal One there were only three shops.
The privatised BAA told Rogers to put in as few seats as possible: there are only 700 seats for a terminal handling an average of 80,000 passengers. BAA wants people to pay to sit down at the terminal's expensive cafes and restaurants - not sit down for free, eating their own sandwiches.
The approach perfectly illustrates the difference in ethos between a publicly-owned company, for whom profit is not the be all and end all, and a privatised one.
We can't blame BAA for treating every square foot at Heathrow as a profit centre: it's a private company which wants to maximise returns for its shareholders. But we can blame the politicians foolish enough to sell off BAA in the first place. Allowing other profit-hungry plcs to compete to run our airports would only mean more of the same. Even the Competition Commission acknowledge that the basic problem lies in BAA's 'ownership structure'.
It’s time to restore BAA to public ownership.