James Ashton: Qataris know that Heathrow is what really matters to BAA

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The Independent Online

Outlook Those Qataris must know something we don't. Only a day or so ago, they laid out £900m for a fifth of BAA, the owner of Heathrow. No sooner is the ink dry than BAA has thrown in the towel on its bid to hang onto Stansted airport, which it was ordered to sell by the Competition Commission three years ago.

Coincidence? Very probably. The loss of Stansted was baked into the price, after all. Not only did most people think BAA was fighting a losing battle, but Stansted, the bane of flustered low-cost travellers lives', is a declining asset anyway as consumers take fewer short breaks.

Yet it is hard to see this as anything but a blow, however anticipated, coming hard on the heels of sell-offs of Gatwick and Edinburgh. Selling assets when prices are depressed is never a good sign.

The BAA boss Colin Matthews has been putting a brave face on the slow dismemberment of his empire ever since he took the reins in 2008. After stints at Hays and water firm Severn Trent, he's used to carving up businesses, just at his own pace.

He knows the crown jewel of BAA has always been Heathrow. Everything else –Southampton, Aberdeen, Glasgow, and yes, even Stansted – is window dressing. That reasoning is what drove the Qatari investment too.

More important is getting a good outcome from the debate over the future of London's airport capacity, which has been kicked into autumn by the Government who seem hell-bent on excluding a third runway at Heathrow from the options that should be put on the table.

Mr Matthews' new backers obviously believe he has plenty to gain, and his arm was strengthened after the comings and goings of legions of Olympic athletes passed off without a hitch.