Today brings the judgement of the Competition Commission on the BAA. As an early advocate of competitive airports for London, I look forward to being able to offer at least a couple of cheers for getting some of the way there at last. In an ideal world there would be different owners for each of the three BAA London airports at Heathrow, Stansted and Gatwick. Failing that, the Commission should demand that BAA chooses either to own Heathrow, the major airport, or the other two. Even requiring the sale of one would be progress.
Why does competition matter? The current level of service to airlines and to travelling passengers is not good enough, and the prices charged are high. If airlines and passengers have some choice of airport under competing managements, each airport will have to try harder to raise service standards and to cut prices. The current owners of BAA have substantial borrowings. New owners might have more borrowing capacity, to make faster and more substantial improvements that require capital outlays.
Improving the service requires new technology and new thinking. It requires collaboration with the government to raise their game over Passport Control and Security. How many times coming back into England do people face long queues to have their passports checked, simply because there are not enough staff present to deal with the numbers? For outbound passengers the delays are mainly at Security, where too few lines are offered and where the checks are clumsily managed. Passengers who do not know the routine are not asked to use their time in the line to prepare themselves for sending their belongings through the machines, so more time is wasted when they do reach the staff. Each time a disaster or attack occurs more retrospective checks are added on the odd assumption that the next attack will mimic the last one. Instead of using intelligence and detailed checking on people more likely to be terrorists, the system produces general checks on everyone. In contrast Customs where there are never queues target their searches and enquiries, choosing sensible random checks to supplement Intelligence driven thorough checks on people they suspect.
A new owner could seek a sensible security review with the government to seek to streamline the service and make it more effective at the same time. It would also allocate more space to the security checks function so we could have more lines for whatever checks are needed. Passport Control probably has enough space, it just needs more people some of the time. A new owner would talk to airlines about streamlining their check in systems, and raise the game on baggage handling. Above all it would provide more capacity, to cut wasted fuel and delays through aircraft having to circle or taxi awaiting a stand. That would be greener as well as better.
Letâ€™s hope the Competition are bold. This could usher in a much needed improvement for the UKâ€™s airports. Maybe they will even demand a similar disposal in Scotland. It will be interesting to see Scottish reactions. Usually MPs from Scotland favour monopolies rather than the â€œwasteâ€ of competition, and favour more rather than less government involvement in things. That is one of the reasons why Scotland remains poorer than England. Perhaps this time they will be offered a dose of something that works? Will they like it? Could it ever prove catching in the Northern air? It will be an interesting challenge for the Scottish economy, and for Labour struggling to explain the poor economic performance of Scotland compared to London .