How to end the 'Heathrow hassle' BAA's monopoly on the capital's three main airports means that it has become complacent, writes Russell Hotten

IT IS difficult to think of another company with so many dissatisfied customers. More than 70m passengers have passed through Heathrow Airport in the past 12 months and it seems a reasonable bet that not many enjoyed the experience. Most businesses...


IT IS difficult to think of another company with so many dissatisfied customers. More than 70m passengers have passed through Heathrow Airport in the past 12 months and it seems a reasonable bet that not many enjoyed the experience.

Most businesses would not survive the sort of criticism heaped on Heathrow but then this is no ordinary business. It is part of a monopoly and, with a pivotal position as the "gateway to Europe'', its customers often have little choice but to use it.

Gatwick, and to a lesser extent Stansted, can be equally dismal experiences. Besides, they do not have the network of connections and services often needed by travellers, especially globetrotting businessmen and women, 18m of whom used Heathrow last year.

Apart from bad service, the other thing these three major airports have in common is that they are run by BAA, which in turn is owned by Spanish construction group Ferrovial. The three airports account for 80pc of flights and 90pc of passengers in south-east England.

Much has been said in recent days about the damage being done to UK business and London's financial centre by Heathrow's problems.

Yesterday, the chief executive of British Airways, Willie Walsh, said the current problem could not continue. The CBI employers' group has warned of the economic consequences. Executives, some of whom might use the airport several times a week, now talk of the "Heathrow hassle'' being a threat to inward investment.

The vice-chairman of Standard Chartered Capital markets, Sir Thomas Harris, said that many executives do whatever they can to avoid using Heathrow.

Last May, in its submission to the Competition Commission, which is considering whether to break up BAA's monopoly, American Airlines, the world's largest carrier, wrote: "BAA's mismanagement of its London airports has cost American millions of dollars in higher landing fees, reduced operational performance and lost revenue as passengers choose to connect through other European hubs.

"We believe that these problems stem in large part from the conclusion reached by the Office of Fair Trading in its study of UK airports - lack of competition has led to lower quality services and higher prices. Any frequent traveller comparing Heathrow and Gatwick with other major European hub airports would likely echo the sentiment that BAA-owned London airports are poorly maintained, equipment is often inoperable, and the customer experience is simply unacceptable.''

In short, Heathrow is bad for business. American's comments underline these are not recent problems, but have been simmering for years.

Ferrovial bought BAA for pounds 10bn more than a year ago, borrowing heavily for

the purchase. It said

little about the Heathrow chaos until recently, when Ferrovial's chairman Rafael del Pino admitted the airport had "many deficiencies''.

What he did not say was how the company intended to improve things.

This week, The Daily Telegraph had expected to interview Stephen Nelson, BAA's chief executive, about just such issues but he decided against it, with the company "citing reasons it could not go into at the moment''.

Professor Rigas Doganis, former chairman of Olympic Airways, believes that not all the blame can be put at Ferrovial's door. The long queues getting through security and sometimes squalid facilities are a BAA problem. But aircraft delays and congestion is a Government issue, the professor says.

And then there are disruptions caused by industrial action or lost luggage - two issues that blight the performance of British Airways, Heathrow's biggest carrier.

The Government introduced new security measures last summer, sparking complaints from passengers that it now takes up to an hour to get through the various screenings and checkpoints. Ferrovial might argue the security clampdown was something it could not foresee but has to enforce. But critics say that, 12 months on, BAA has done nothing to ease the situation. Nor does it explain the pre-existing operational problems.

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