Beleaguered airports owner hires Blair's spin doctor

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BAA has hired Tony Blair's former spokesman to guide the beleaguered owner of Heathrow airport through a morass of Gov-ernment inquiries and oper-ational issues that have led it to being branded a "national disgrace".

The appointment of Tom Kelly, who spent six years in Downing Street, most recently as the top PR man for the former prime minister, as group director of corporate and public affairs, was announced yesterday by the company. He will replace Ian Hargreaves, one of the first in an exodus of executives who have left BAA since it was taken over last year by the Spanish construction firm Ferrovial.

The amount of time it took to find a replacement for Mr Hargeaves, who left more than a year ago, is a testament to the task before Mr Kelly, who will start the new job on 5 November. His first order of business will be to help shape the response to an inquiry, announced last week, from the Transport Select Committee into "The Future of BAA". The inquiry will lead to a televised grilling of company executives, including chief executive Stephen Nelson. It is unclear whether Rafael del Pino, the chief executive of Ferrovial, will be called in from Madrid. A spokesman said: "If the committee asks, we will do everything in our power to get him there." BAA has started providing evidence before two days of hearings set for 21 and 25 November.

The company is also fighting the Civil Aviation Authority after the regulator suggested allowed profits and landing fees that were much lower than BAA had been lobbying for. The company has threatened to shelve refurbishment plans at Heathrow if the terms are not improved.

The Competition Commission, meanwhile, is trying to decide whether the introduction of more competition through a break-up of BAA, which controls Gatwick and Stansted airports, would improve service for travellers.

BAA has been criticised for the ramshackle infrastructure that greets travellers at Heathrow, Europe's busiest airport. The former chancellor Lord Lamont called it a "national disgrace", while ministers have expressed concern that the poor state of the airport could hurt London's status as a global financial centre.