HEATHROW CEASED be an airport a long time ago. Instead it became a giant shopping mall with a runway attached. Gatwick has gone the same way, and a similar fate surely awaits the vast open spaces of Stansted, once the overspill of passengers and airlines from its sister airports lends it critical mass.
Now BAA, which calls itself an airport operator but has a retail business the size of Dixons, plans to do the same with Eurotunnel. Undaunted by the prospect of duty-free dying out this summer, it has taken on the retail operations of the two Channel tunnel terminals at Folkestone and Calais for the next 15 years.
BAA has been attracted by what the retail wizards know as "dwell time". The vagaries of air traffic control and the check-in requirements of airlines mean that the average passenger at Terminal One has 50 minutes to kill before a flight. BAA would naturally prefer them to be eating at Harry Ramsden's, or even better shopping in the Harrods store, than reading a newspaper. So retailing and catering space is maximised at the expense of somewhere peaceful to sit down.
Holidaymakers on Le Shuttle are about to enjoy the same selling experience. BAA has discovered that their dwell time can be anything up to 60 minutes. At Calais the scope for emptying passengers' pockets is endless. The terminal itself is vast and even if duty-free is axed, duty-paid prices of beer and baccy on the French side of La Manche will remain 35 per cent below high street prices over here.
Folkestone is a slightly more tricky proposition, since it is a much smaller terminal. But BAA plans to enrich the retail mix to begin with and then creep outwards if the Kent county planners allow it. The result will be a useful boost to revenues - pounds 100m minimum even without duty-free, reckons BAA. This may even help to keep down Le Shuttle ticket prices.