MPs grill BAA over airport standards

ENVIRONMENTAL protesters were forcibly ejected yesterday from a parliamentary committee's grilling of BAA management over poor service at Britain's major airports.

As BAA chairman Sir Nigel Rudd and chief executive Stephen Nelson prepared to field MPs' robust questioning over security queues, dirty airports and the group's capability to invest, campaigners opposed to a third runway at Heathrow disrupted the Transport Select Committee hearing.

Protesters from action group Plane Stupid revealed T-shirts with the slogan "No Third Runway'', with one screaming at the BAA boss: "Nelson - the future will judge you.'' They were removed by police.

Gwyneth Dunwoody, the committee chairman, dismissed the protest as childish, saying: "If people are so unsure of their arguments that they need to disrupt a select committee, that says everything about their arguments.''

The protest followed evidence from three airline customers - American Airlines (AA), British Airways and easyJet - in a hearing on the future of BAA, which owns seven UK airports including the London monopoly of Heathrow, Gatwick and Stansted.

Don Langford, AA's managing director for Europe and India, contrasted BAA's tardy reaction to the new security arrangements imposed after last year's terror plot to that of rival Manchester Airport.

"In the last two years BAA has been less responsive over operational issues,'' he said. "Access to senior management has deteriorated.''

Mr Nelson took issue with that but admitted: "I regret the frustration over poor service. We have much to do. We are making progress.''

He said BAA's new owner, a consortium controlled by Spanish construction group Ferrovial, had spent an extra pounds 30m to cut security queues and improve cleanliness, while next year's opening of Heathrow's Terminal 5 would ease congestion.

"You can't drag people off the street and put them in a security operation,'' Mr Nelson said, stressing that BAA had interviewed 35,000 applicants to fill 2,000 security posts after laborious criminal record checks and other tests.

MPs quizzed Sir Nigel over BAA's capability to invest, given that its owner - which bought the group in a highly leveraged pounds 16.3bn deal - has been forced to delay plans to refinance pounds 9bn of debts. Sir Nigel said: "I think they have been surprised and shocked by the reduction from 7.75pc to 6.2pc'' - a reference to the regulator's proposed cut in the group's allowed returns at Heathrow.

"The capital is available,'' he added. "What I worry about is return on capital. I think this sends a terrible message to anyone who is thinking of investing in infrastructure in the UK.''

Toby Nicol, easyJet's communications director, called for a review of BAA's regulation by the Civil Aviation Authority, arguing a formula founded on a regulated asset base rewarded poorly targeted spending.

"BAA makes a profit margin that would make Tutankhamun blush,'' Mr Nicol said. "It's allowed to spend and spend and spend and we are the ones who are left to pick up the bill.''

Why else, he said, would BAA be considering handling A380 super-jumbos on a proposed new runway at Stansted when no airline planned to fly them there. "Why are we, the users now, expected to pay for that?''

Paul Ellis, BA's general manager of infrastructure policy, called for the regulator to impose licensing conditions on BAA. "There's clearly not enough teeth in the regulatory process at the moment,'' he said.