Forty years of taxiing on UK runways

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Britain is a small island, dependent on frequent and reliable air travel. From the distribution of its population, its biggest airport would ideally be north-west of London.

To be stranded in mainland Europe is not a great hardship if you can occupy a house with a view of the Mediterranean rather than a space on the floor at Charles de Gaulle airport. So this is not another account of hardships endured last month in snow and ice – but it is an inquiry into why the UK experienced the most acute disruption in Europe.

We can start two decades ago with the botched privatisation of the British Airports Authority, since renamed BAA. Before privatisation, it was a government agency with a range of functions – a role in the development of airport policy, responsibility for the infrastructure of state-owned airports, and regulation of activities within the airports themselves (most airport functions are, and always have been, the responsibility of airlines and private contractors).

This combination of activities was not suitable for a public company. Nor was it appropriate for one company to manage all of London’s big airports. But pressure from investment bankers seeking the simplest and most profitable route to large fees and from a management wanting little change to their lives beyond higher salaries and greater autonomy led to exactly that outcome.

The new business drove ahead the concept of “airport as shopping mall”. This development reached its epitome in Heathrow’s Terminal 5, where you can spend all day shopping without realising that the building has another function. Prohibited by price controls from distributing the revenues directly to shareholders, BAA spent heavily on Stansted airport, a white elephant just north of London. Stansted never succeeded as an alternative hub to Heathrow or even Gatwick, but benefited from the growth of low-cost airlines in the 1990s, attracting them with bargain basement prices. Unable to maintain these low charges, it is now losing traffic.

When a “golden share” blocking takeover was removed, BAA was soon the subject of a bidding war. The theory of the market for corporate control claims that takeovers deliver assets to the people who can secure most value for them: the reality is that assets go to those with the greatest hubris. No one imagined, in 2006, that the bidders offered enhanced skills in airport management. The rationale was the opportunity to match Heathrow’s secure revenue stream with underpriced debt. The result was a cash-strapped business, with the resulting pressure relieved only recently by very large increases in charges to airlines.

Highly geared businesses are not suited to the long horizons needed for airport planning. Nor is modern British government. Ministers are obsessed with the quest for favourable headlines, while civil servants will “cross that bridge when we come to it”. A pretence of democracy enables minority groups to delay public interest goals more or less indefinitely. Heathrow’s Terminal 5 inquiry took a decade to reach the inevitable conclusion that the extra capacity was necessary.

This farce, and others like it, convinced many that there must be a better way. But none has been found. The coalition has again delayed construction of a third runway at Heathrow. (Frankfurt has three runways, Paris Charles de Gaulle four, Atlanta five and Chicago O’Hare airport seven.) Heathrow passengers must instead entertain the fantasy that a high-speed rail link to Edinburgh and Glasgow – destinations for less than 5 per cent of the airport’s passengers – might one day relieve the congestion.

Britain is a small island, dependent on frequent and reliable air travel. From the distribution of its population, its biggest airport would ideally be north-west of London.

So the story really began 40 years ago. The Roskill Commission concluded then, after an exhaustive inquiry, that the best option was to build an airport at Cublington in Buckinghamshire which would take over from rather than compete with Heathrow. Roskill was, of course, right. Its recommendations were never implemented because of political posturing, which continues to the present day.

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