The Man Who Pays His Way: Let's check out of Heathrow and check in to the alternatives...
Saturday 15 March 2008
Airports, by their nature, stay where they are put. You, on the other hand, are mobile. In a week when British aviation has once again demonstrated that it operates in a different universe from the rest of us, you should capitalise on freedom of movement and choose your airport with care.
The Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), whose job it is to ensure that you fly in a safe, economical and civil fashion, has watched our leading airport, Heathrow, degenerate into a national disgrace. It turns out that the penalty for failure is... being showered with heaps of cash. The CAA this week awarded Heathrow's owner, BAA, the right to double fees within five years.
Over the past couple of years, queues for security at Europe's busiest airport have sometimes extended to an hour or more, while basic infrastructure – such as the baggage system at Terminal 4 – has proved embarrassingly inadequate. The men and women on the front line have done their best, yet find themselves in the firing line when passengers' frustrations reach boiling point. But the real failure lies with senior management, and ultimately the owner of BAA, Ferrovial of Spain.
Spanish-owned infrastructure can be superb, as the new railway line from Madrid to Barcelona demonstrates. But among users of the seven airports that Ferrovial owns through its subsidiary BAA, the word "superb" does not crop up too often. Yesterday was a rare exception, when the Queen opened Terminal 5.
Although the new £4.3bn facility has arrived late and slightly too small for its tenant, British Airways, at least it shows that using Heathrow does not necessarily have to be miserable – though the real test will begin only at the end of April when the majority of BA's flights transfer to Terminal 5.
Anyone who has used Heathrow's hopelessly inadequate existing terminals over the past five years has been helping to pay for the new facility, which, if they do not fly British Airways in the future, they will not get to enjoy. But they will get to share the burden of a 23.5 per cent increase in charges next month, and the prospect of a £20 passenger service charge within five years.
The CAA, which regulates the monster monopoly, has played free and easy with other people's money – yours and mine – to lavish financial favours upon BAA.
What does BAA have to do besides sit back and count the cash? The CAA's head of regulation was keen to stress that the bonanza comes with a few strings attached. The wait at security should be no more than five minutes, 95 per cent of the time. For BAA, this is the most excellent target, which means that for us travellers, it is rubbish.
Had the CAA had the cojones to tell the Spanish company to hit the mark 100 per cent of the time, then the airport operator would have its work cut out running a good service. As it is, though, you will never know when you might be among that unlucky 5 per cent. Therefore, you must plan to accommodate a wide degree of uncertainty when you arrive at Heathrow. Nineteen times out of 20 you will allow too much time, and find yourself shopping for things you didn't know you needed, boosting the earnings of BAA every time you tap in your PIN.
A Captive market? Some travellers will wearily accept that they have no choice but to be taken for a ride before taking a flight. But across the UK, there are alternatives to the still-shoddy service and rocketing fees at BAA airports. Indeed, within a few hours of the announcement, an indignant traveller (left) had bought the internet domain otherairportsareavailable.com.
Luton is the obvious alternative to Stansted, as Bournemouth is to Southampton and Prestwick to Glasgow. Some substitutes are subtler; for example, Birmingham airport has a good claim to be London's sixth airport. It is only 75 minutes from London Euston, and the cheapest rail fare is a lot less than the Heathrow Express from Paddington. Similarly, while the Scottish capital has no rail connection with its own BAA-run airport, there is a direct train from Edinburgh to Manchester airport.
West Sussex has two international airports: Gatwick, which is owned by BAA, and Shoreham, which isn't. The problem is: unless you want to go to northern France, Shoreham is unlikely to be much help. However, if you can make your way to Paris Charles de Gaulle – by train, boat or plane – you will find a far wider range of destinations than any UK airport can offer. And from north-west England or Wales, a ferry to Ireland unlocks the options at Dublin airport, as well as enabling you to dodge air passenger duty.
Getting mobile and choosing a different airport is not only good for your finances – it also makes better use of the UK's airport resources. The nation has far more capacity in both runways and terminal space than it needs; the problem is, travellers seem drawn to south-east England, which is why the planning battle for a second runway at Stansted began this week. Yet provincial airports can offer better service and lower fees than Heathrow, Gatwick and Stansted because they are hungry for business to fill all the spare capacity.
Meanwhile, the real winners are the former BAA shareholders who took advantage of Ferrovial's absurdly inflated bid for the airport operator. Ferrovial is now saddled with huge debts, which it would like you to help it to pay off. Your choice.
Their suits were uniformly immaculate, and hinted at the rewards enjoyed by chief executives of premier-league airlines. But their expressions revealed the stress of trying to make a decent living in the most competitive aviation market in the world.
Never before had there been a line-up like this for a news event. On Tuesday morning, the bosses of easyJet, Virgin Atlantic and BMI shared a platform to denounce the decision to increase airport fees.
BAA argues that it needs the extra cash to pay for a bold investment programme. Its airports are "at the start of the beginning of a transformation", according to Tom Kelly, director of communications.
I picked up the theme to ask the airline chiefs when we might reach perhaps the middle of the beginning of a transformation, given that Heathrow and Gatwick have been operating for 62 and 72 years, respectively.
"What the hell have they [BAA] been doing for the past 10 years?" asked Nigel Turner of BMI.
He demanded competition between airports – and even between individual terminals at Heathrow.
"If Terminal 1 competed against Terminal 3, you would get a far better Terminal 1 and a far better Terminal 3, as they fought for our business. Has competition been good for aviation or would we be better just having one British Airways?
"BA, BMI, Virgin, easyJet and Ryanair have been knocking seven bells out of each other. Who benefits? The airlines? Maybe. But the consumers – definitely."
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