Business View: It's up to air passengers to clip BAA's wings

If the airport operator is finally broken up, let's vote with our feet
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The Independent Online

This weekend and next, hundreds of thousands of Brits will take to the skies to spend Christmas abroad.

Most will take off from an airport operated by BAA, the company now owned by Spanish giant Ferrovial. These sites include Heathrow, Gatwick, Stansted and, in Scotland, Edinburgh, Glasgow and Aberdeen. In fact, BAA's airports handle 90 per cent of all passenger traffic in the South-east and 80 per cent in Scotland.

For many air travellers, passing through BAA's halls will be a depressing experience. Long queues, surly staff, expensive shopping outlets and baggage halls that look like they were created by Loki, the Norse God of Mischief, send blood pressures soaring.

Maybe John Fingleton, the chief executive of the Office of Fair Trading, had the misfortune to encounter BAA's facilities himself recently. I only suggest it, because his competition authority issued a 143- page document last week detailing the case for the break-up of what is, in effect, the operator's monopoly on air travel. "We believe the current market structure does not deliver best value for air travellers in the UK, and that greater competition within the industry could bring significant benefits for passengers."

Doh! Ya think, John, really?

While his judgement is no blinding flash of inspiration, it has to be welcomed. Privately owned monopolies are never, and I mean never, a good thing. Without competition, companies rest on their laurels, milking customers for all they are worth and ignoring complaints.

Ferrovial claims to welcome the idea of a break-up if it results in lighter regulation from government. Good, then we won't be hearing any objections out of them if Mr Fingleton gets his way.

Lighter regulation, in this context, means BAA can charge airlines more for using its airports. Thanks to the lack of spare capacity in the South-east, it won't have to worry about rival airports taking its business.

However, while airlines may not see much benefit from a BAA break-up, we consumers can vote with our feet and choose to fly from an airport that thankfully lacks BAA's grubby pawprints.

Plcs are poor relations

This week, the London Stock Exchange will issue its defence document against a hostile takeover bid from Nasdaq, its New York rival. The LSE will argue that the offer does not take into account the London market's bright prospects.

It is true that the number of trades on the LSE is up and so is the money raised from floats. The FTSE is now sitting comfortably above the symbolic 6,000 level and all seems rosy.

But just who is pulling the strings on London's exchanges? I spoke last week to the chief executive of one of the country's largest FTSE 100 companies, who expressed his frustration that large institutions are cutting their exposure to equities. He told me he would like to be free to raise capital to grow his business for the benefit of its owners - including most of you who hold his company's shares in your pension fund. But, he said, that task was becoming very hard.

And this is why: a mountain of capital is now going into private equity, hedge funds, bonds and other asset classes. The City's money men are turning their backs on plcs that are trying to raise capital to secure their long-term futures. Why bother when you can back private equity predators that look to take out listed companies on the cheap? Why spend years supporting plcs in their bid to create value for shareholders, when hedge funds can get you the same return in a week by ram-raiding a company's shareholder registry?

These are vital questions that this newspaper will return to in the new year.

a.murray-watson@independent.co.uk

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