Simon Calder: Everyone's a winner now the big three airports are competing

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New York? Tokyo? Paris? They may be mighty global hubs, but the aviation market in London and South-east England is way ahead of anywhere on the planet in scale and competition.

British airline passengers began to feel the benefits of competition 32 years ago, when the Laker Skytrain demonstrated that economy fares across the Atlantic could be halved overnight if free enterprise was allowed to flourish.

Since then the UK, and in particular the London area, has become the biggest and most competitive airline market in the world. Travellers in France, Germany and Italy have nothing to compare with the wide choice and low fares offered by British Airways, easyJet, Ryanair, Virgin Atlantic, BMI and a host of other airlines. So it is curious (some would say scandalous) that it has taken successive governments so long to dismantle the near-monopoly held by BAA on airports in South-east England. With the three busiest airports all in the hands of the same Spanish company, there was no incentive to offer lower charges or better services.

Now that the big three are free to compete, airlines and their passengers can look forward to a range of benefits. Airlines' finance directors can't wait to play one airport off against the others, and part of any negotiation is sure to be the quality of passenger services.

Finally, once Heathrow gets its third runway, about a decade from now, London will have two world-class hub airports and Europe's leading short-haul gateway. Apart, Heathrow, Gatwick and Stansted will prove much stronger than they were together.