As a fairly regular user of Heathrow Airport and other UK airports such as Gatwick – the former has suffered all manner of problems due to loss of baggage, massive queues – this, on the face of it, looks a good development, but I have my reservations, as I will explain later:
Aug. 20 (Bloomberg) — BAA Ltd., the owner of London’s Heathrow airport, should be broken up and its Gatwick and Stansted terminals sold off to foster competition in the U.K. capital, antitrust regulators said.
The unit of Spanish builder Grupo Ferrovial SA provides a poor service to airlines and passengers and has shown a lack of initiative in planning for additional capacity, the Competition Commission said today, recommending that the company should also be stripped of either Glasgow or Edinburgh airport in Scotland. BAA said the analysis was “flawed.”
Hmm. The problem partly stems from the fact that when BAA was originally privatised by the former Tory government, it was sold as a monopoly. That is not, in and of itself, a terrible thing so long as there are other competing transportation businesses. But there were not other big airports owned by non-BAA businesses to compete, especially against the crucial hub of Heathrow. In a previous Samizdata posting on the Snafu of the opening of Heathrow’s Terminal Five, one commenter pointed out that one issue that is sometimes overlooked in issues like this is restrictions on new airport builds by the planning authorities. Well indeed. I think there is a good case for building an airport to the eastern side of London, on the flat lands that sit to the north of the Thames (it is not as if this is an area of outstanding natural beauty). It would relieve some of the air traffic now coming over the capital, which would be good for abating noise as well as removing a potential safety and security issue of thousands of aircraft flying into land over the middle of London.
Getting planning permission for a new airport is, under the current system, very difficult. Yes, there are, in the UK, a lot of old, disused military bases left by the RAF and the USAF, such as in Oxfordshire, Lincolnshire, and East Anglia and bits of Kent. However, the trouble is that such bases were deliberately built miles away from major urban centres, to prevent the danger that an attack on such a base would hit a large city. So you have th situation of huge runways turning into rubble in the middle of Suffolk but of no real use to commuters in London. So we would need something a bit closer. Another matter to bear in mind is that southern England is not very large: airspace is at a premium and already crowded, if not quite so bad as during the Cold War, when the UK was covered in airbases.
I am not, as a free market purist, at all happy to see a private business broken up at the behest of a state regulator, but then we should recall that BAA was originally put together as a state business and sold as a monopoly as a matter of state policy. When its current owners, the Spanish firm Ferrovial, bought BAA, they must have known that failure to sort out the problems might have incurred the wrath of the regulator. It would be nice in a total free market not to have to bother about such things, but it would have been failure of basic due diligence for Ferrovial’s lawyers not to have warned their managers that competition issue might arise. Well, it jolly well has arisen at last. We would not, as the old joke about the Irishman giving street directions to a tourist, want to start from here. But here is where we are. If there is a chance of putting a large, competitive fire up the backsides of BAA’s management, there is a chance, however slender, that the experience of coming to and from the UK by air might be a tad more pleasant in future.