The need for competition in airports


altColin Matthews, Chief Executive of the UK airports operator BAA, has launched into the debate on the future of London's airports with a big speech at the Transport Times conference. There has been suggestion that more traffic should be decanted to other London airports; but, says Matthews, if people were unable to make connections at Heathrow (and, I suppose, faced a gruelling trip across London on the capital's ailing public transport system), it would be a major strategic mistake. Charles De Gaulle or Schipol airports would be only to happy to pick up those interlining passengers, and the UK as a whole would suffer.

So he is strongly in favour of a third runway at Heathrow, rather than resurrecting the old idea of building a new hub in the Thames Estuary. (That idea was floated in the 1960s, but dropped for environmental reasons, leaving Stansted to become the third London airport. I cannot imagine that environmental concerns have got any lighter in the intervening period.) And Matthews thinks the suggestion that Heathrow should be made better before it is made bigger is a false choice. Heathrow needs both new runway capacity and better terminal facilities, not just one or the other.

He's probably right on all these points, though critics like Ryanair's Michael O'Leary complain at the cost of BAA's new airport infrastructure projects, and that a lot of travel these days is point-to-point, which can be done using smaller airports that are presently underused. One thing I still think should happen, though, is that BAA's London near-monopoly (Heathrow, Gatwick, Stansted) should be broken up. We said that in the early 1980s in an excellent little paper called Airports for Sale. Competition works. It's time we had more of it in the provision of airports, just as we now do in airlines.