Commentary: Time to grasp the Heathrow nettle

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The Independent Online
The Government is being bombarded with suggestions about how to reduce congestion at Heathrow. Here is another: open up the airport 24 hours a day, allow the simultaneous use of runways for take-offs and landings and shorten the separation gap between incoming aircraft to 15 seconds.

True, it wouldn't do an awful lot for air safety but it would frighten off so many passengers that Heathrow's capacity problem would become a dim memory.

Seriously, however, there is a growing need for action. Britain led the way in Europe by creating a competitive, multi- airline industry. But the benefits to the customer of this liberalised approach risk being scattered to the wind unless rival airlines can enter the market.

Heathrow's problem is its shortage of slots for aircraft to take off and land - made more acute since the Government abolished the rules restricting the number of airlines which could operate there.

Many solutions have been proffered, ranging from measures to increase runway capacity to the auctioning of slots to the highest bidder.

The airline industry is incapable, however, of speaking with one voice, since individual carriers tend to have vested and conflicting interests. Virgin, for instance, wants preference given to long-haul airlines and new entrants while British Airways, which possesses a third of Heathrow's slots, favours a trading system.

The Government has preferred to steer well clear of the mess, claiming that slot allocation is a matter for the airlines that run the Heathrow scheduling committee. It can no longer take this attitude when the whole thrust of its aviation policy is in danger of being undermined.

John MacGregor, the Secretary of State for Transport, should grasp the nettle and decide which solution to opt for. If nothing else, it would be a break from the even more intractable and depressing task of privatising British Rail.