20 APRIL 2009

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Article from BTNews 20 APRIL 2009

COMMENT: Heathrow - Where do we go from here?

It is now 12 months since Heathrow’s Terminal 5 shambolic opening, a total public relations disaster.  Those dark distant days are now well behind us, but did this national disgrace need to have happened?

The on-going economic crisis has in fact in some ways been good for the travel industry.  Lesser numbers has meant no further debacles as airports all around the globe have adjusted with difficulty to even more stringent security rules, and with larger aircraft arriving in smaller numbers than anticipated.  The world’s two biggest plane makers have gained breathing space as they struggle to get their latest wonder machines into the air.  Airports like Heathrow, and it was not the only one in trouble, have caught up.

It has been an interesting year.

In the UK the idea of an absentee airport landlord has failed to work and Ferrovial is now being forced by the Competition Commission to sell Gatwick, Stansted and one of either Edinburgh or Glasgow airports, within two years.  In has in fact to some extent jumped rather than being pushed, London’s second airport, which is also Europe’s eighth busiest, now on the market.

But let us return to Heathrow and the events of March 2008.

Could they have been avoided?

The answer is yes.

And can things be improved for the future?

Again the answer is yes.

Heathrow Terminal 5 is operated by BAA with BA one of many tenants in the building, albeit by a long way the largest.  There is a whole management team from BAA dealing with British Airways and the day to day and long term problems associated with running what is the world’s largest single airport terminal building.  Whether it is the cleaning, car parking, security, baggage handling, airside operations, or the shops, the customers, that is the BA passengers, expect the airline to deal with the problem.  They have little interest, and for the most part have a modest understanding, of how an airport works.  And why should they?

British Airways needs to take over the management of Heathrow Terminal 5.  This will speed decision making and eliminate a whole raft of supervisory staff.  It will reduce costs significantly and make the whole operation more efficient.  And at the same time SkyTeam can be responsible for T4, and Star Alliance T1 whilst BAA could remain in charge of T3, that is unless One World would like to be responsible for that complex which also offers a home for the non-aligned.

With each of the major players running a terminal at the world’s busiest international airport there would be true competition between the airlines, not only in the air, but on the ground too.  A healthy rivalry would exist.  BAA would still be getting its rents and be responsible for the infrastructure.  The terminals would compete and if one turned out to be better than another that would be in the true spirit of free enterprise.  The airport owner would be free to push ahead with the T6 project and at some time hand that over to an airline operator.

British Airways has always in the past responded that they are an airline and not an airport operator.  True, but an airline is a multi-functional operation.  BA is responsible for its own lounges, engineering and catering, all functions of an airline.  The check-in and other handling staff are for the most part employed by BA.  BAA should just remain the landlord.  

We are now in what once was called the ‘phoney war’ period at Heathrow.  Nothing is quite set in stone.  Vital decisions can be reversed without pain.  Changes can be made without too many problems.  Heathrow needs a re-think between airlines and airport.  Maybe the way it functions will continue, as is, maybe not.  An urgent and proper debate is required.

Malcolm Ginsberg

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