What is an airport for?

It's for a quick and simple check-in and take-off ... not an appalling orgy of consumerism, argues Terence Conran
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Airports, I believe, should be civilised gateways from one country (or city) to another. More than that, they should be in some way representative of the character of that country. Napoleon belittled us as a nation of shopkeepers, but is that really the impression we wish to perpetuate? The British Airports Authority, it seems, would think so. And nobody - certainly not the Government, and certainly not the planners - is responding to the huge and vulgar change in emphasis that has overtaken Heathrow and Gatwick Airports, whereby they are now principally concerned in the business of retail.

Around the world, but especially in the UK, retailing has overwhelmed the main purpose of air terminals: to ensure that passengers enjoy a swift, safe, calm and easy transition through check-in procedures and passport control to board an aeroplane. While John Gummer has announced his intention that the Department of the Environment should strengthen its commitment to town centres and curb out-of-town superstores, my understanding is that once planning permission for an airport terminal is granted, the BAA is free to use and develop that site as it chooses. If you or I wanted to convert an empty school into a shopping centre, the first step would be to seek permission for the proposed change of use; the BAA, by contrast, has converted Heathrow and Gatwick Airports into huge out-of-town shopping centres, and they are set to become bigger still.

The figures, apparently, speak for themselves: airport shopping is big, booming business. According to the BAA, gross retail income for 1995/96 rose by 10.5 per cent on the previous year to pounds 556m, accounting for 44 per cent of total BAA revenue, the largest single source. And although tax/duty free sales were dominated by liquor, tobacco and perfume, it is clothing, electrical equipment and jewellery that are the fastest growth areas in terms of sales.

With this in mind, the BAA is embarked on an ambitious expansion plan, concentrated mainly on Heathrow and Gatwick airports. In part this is in response to the rising number of airline passengers, but there can be no doubt about how the BAA views its captive population. The recently completed expansion of the international departure lounge at Heathrow Terminal One increased its size from 4,000 square metres to 16,000 square metres (400 per cent), yet seating allocation only rose from 800 to 2,000 seats (150 per cent). By contrast, the number of shops rose from eight to 31 (387 per cent), and of food outlets from one to five (500 per cent).

I was flying from Terminal One only last month. All is glossy and new, clean and tidy in the shopping areas; in the walkways and the departure lounge, however, it's an altogether different story. They are fitted with stained, worn-out carpet held together with odd lengths of black tape, patched plastic tiles, odd wires hanging all over the place, broken chairs with their stuffing hanging out, cigarette burns on table tops, rubbish on the floors. The check-in desks are falling to pieces.

Even a Third-World country would feel disgraced by the squalor and shabbiness. It's transparently clear where BAA's priorities lie. No doubt it would blame the passengers' loutish behaviour; perhaps it should look to its own loutish advertising for the source of this behaviour.

The BAA argues that it needs to develop airport shopping to keep its running costs as low as possible and to fund the expansion of airport capacity. The latter will naturally incorporate an even greater number of shops than we already have. And, of course, the BAA is scared of the impact that the loss of duty-free benefits to passengers travelling within the EU will have, if the legislation concerning this comes into force, as anticipated, on 1 July 1999. Yet I wonder what effect the airport shopping boom is having on the costs of the carriers, as passengers stagger on to their aircraft laden with last-minute duty-free shopping?

The strategy being pursued by the BAA is the supreme example of the folly of knee-jerk privatisation, whereby a previously nationalised company feels obliged, on behalf of its shareholders, to pursue a course it was never intended to follow. Answerable mainly to its board and shareholders, the BAA enjoys a monopoly on tax- and duty-free retail space, which it shares with a select group of retailers. Tax- and duty-free purchases deny the Government millions of pounds of revenue. How is it that the same Government can be so unquestioning of the unique advantages it has created for a privatised company and a select group of high-street retailers?

The Heathrow Terminal Five inquiry brings to light some interesting attitudes towards shopping on the part of the BAA. Already, Gatwick Airport, in my opinion, is being advertised as a shopping destination regardless of whether people are then boarding a plane. There is a blurring of the distinction between what is available landside (to everybody) and airside (to passengers only). The retail balance heavily favours airside shopping at the moment, but the possible abolition of intra-EU duty-free benefits will significantly dent the BAA's income and may lead to a shift in emphasis.

Asked last year by one of the planning inspectors conducting the Terminal Five inquiry how the BAA would react if conditions were imposed to limit landside shopping, Michael Maine, of the BAA, said objections would be raised, even though such conditions would be "totally unnecessary". As Peter Brown, spokesman for Local Authorities Against Terminal Five, explains, "Under current arrangements, the application is essentially for a big box; what is put in that box is entirely at the discretion of the BAA."

An air terminal should be an air terminal - a pleasant, efficient, relaxed place for boarding passengers on to planes with a minimum of fuss. I cringe at the thought that the last impression many people take home with them when leaving the UK is of a cluttered, frenzied, shopping mall, a bargain- basement bazaar from which there is no escape. And I cringe yet again when I see BAA's crass advertising on television, using a lager-lout mentality to encourage travellers to make VAT- and duty-free purchases.

I am not against airport shopping per se; it is the scale of the BAA's operation that appalls me. The new airport at Hamburg, for example, has shops, but the departure lounge is not overwhelmed by them. The Eurostar Terminal at Waterloo (a close equivalent) similarly strikes a balance between providing space for shops where last-minute essentials might be bought, and plenty of space for waiting passengers to sit in peace and comfort. Of course, the check-in line for Eurostar is just 30 minutes prior to departure, and it has no duty- or VAT-free shopping.

British airports, by contrast, are partly so overcrowded because passengers are encouraged to check in so early. (And then they are stuck in the departure lounge with nothing to do but shop.)

In November last year, Retail Week listed Sir John Egan, chief executive of the BAA, as one of the 50 most important people in British retailing. What happened to the business of running Britain's airports? Sure, people might want to buy a newspaper or pick up a paperback, or they might suddenly realise they forgot to pack a toothbrush. But airport shopping has gone way beyond the means of providing such a service. In the words of one of the BAA's recent press releases: "Everything you needed and quite a few things you didn't even know you needed are now available".

Such rampant consumerism offends me, even as a retailer myself. I am also concerned about the impression it gives to visitors to our country. For I am a designer, one who passionately believes in the dictum of fitness of purpose. I am also a taxpayer, and as such I object to the enrichment of BAA's shareholders at the expense of tax lost on airside purchases - tax losses for which the rest of us have to pay. BAA has quite lost sight of its original purpose, turning our airports into major retail outlets, with the opportunity to catch your plane if you can find it. These are fundamental changes, yet they have never been presented to government or the planners.