Shabby Heathrow Must Improve

I found myself in the unusual ? and rather disconcerting ? position of agreeing wholeheartedly with Mayor Ken Livingstone recently when he declared that Heathrow Airport ‘is shaming London.’

The Mayor was speaking out as the British Airports Authority (BAA) prepared to go to court to remove protestors who have been campaigning against airport expansion. But before we even consider plans for expansion at Heathrow, I am sure most of us would just like to have an airport which functions properly.

Flying into Britain, often for the first time, travellers from across the globe can currently expect to be greeted by a shabby, overcrowded, understaffed and poorly planned mess of an airport. Britons getting away for their holidays, on the other hand, are faced with the frustrating prospect of long security queues and mind numbing delays as the prologue to their hard-earned breaks. None of this takes into account the problems they might encounter on arriving at their destination ? some 22 000 items of luggage are lost in transit each month by Heathrow staff.

Perhaps we would all have stoically soldiered on amidst the chaos had we felt that BAA was doing the best it could in hard times. After all, most of us accept why security has had to be tightened in recent years. However, as the monopolistic monolith that is BAA boasted increased profits, it was also revealed that since its recent takeover by the Spanish Ferrovial Group, it has invested fifteen percent less in what should be its flagship asset, than the previous year. With the majority of revenue at Heathrow coming from retail outlets rather than (relatively low) landing charges, it is clear that BAA bosses have done their sums and found that profits come not from passenger satisfaction but from selling alcohol, perfume and Toblerone to a captive ? and delayed – audience.

BAA was established in 1966 to take responsibility for the UK’s four state-owned airports, and was later privatised in the 1980s under a Conservative administration. With hindsight, it has become clear that it was a mistake to privatise the Authority as a monopoly. BAA has since become a complacent organisation which has overseen our increasingly crowded airports in a state of decline.

Nevertheless, the condition of our airports is not just about the travelling experiences of Brits off on holiday. It is an issue which affects our economy, and if the consequences of Heathrow’s decline are to be seen anywhere, it will be in my constituency. In the City of London we have a large international business community that needs proper transport facilities to function, and in Westminster we have cultural and historical wonders which draw visitors from across the globe, mostly via London’s airports.

City bosses are beginning to complain that the ‘Heathrow hassle factor’ is dissuading many business executives from travelling to the capital. No one can blame them ? especially in views of the delays at immigration for senior business folk. Economic Secretary to the Treasury, Kitty Ussher, recently drew attention to this problem by warning of the danger of multinationals relocating meetings to other countries as company chiefs seek to avoid the chaos of British airports. And with Heathrow acting as the gateway to Britain for the majority of tourists, our reputation across the world will be damaged. As the airport is currently operating at 98.5% capacity, we must accept that this state of affairs cannot continue.

Thankfully an investigation by the Competition Commission is now underway into BAA’s stranglehold on our most important airports, which could result in the breaking up of the monopoly. Matters also look set to improve when the sparkling and well-planned Terminal 5 is handed over to BAA next March. However the uplift this could give the airport must not be used to cloud BAA’s performance record or this government’s dreadful complacency over Britain’s transport systems. It must be recognised that our economy and quality of life will continue to suffer if we fail to invest in our infrastructure ? whether that be our tube network, railways, roads or dismal airports.