Leading article: Let airport competition begin

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There are many reasons to criticise airports, not least the damage that flying inflicts on the environment. The contribution that aviation makes to air pollution, noise pollution and carbon emissions cannot be disputed. But flying is one of the necessary evils of the modern world; it can even, at times, be a pleasure. And there is no reason why the first and last stages of air travel, passing through the airport, should be as much of a torment as it often is at the major London terminals.

The monopoly enjoyed by BAA may or may not have contributed to this. At a very minimum, the lack of competition is likely to have fostered a degree of complacency. What incentive was there for BAA to improve standards of service and facilities, while the company controlled every major airport easily reached by travellers from the capital and the South-east, including the major international hub that is Heathrow? The outcry over queues and lost baggage in the weeks after Heathrow Terminal 5 was first opened prompted an emergency shake-up there, but did little for passengers using other terminals and airports in BAA's regional empire.

While continuing to resist several aspects of the break-up of its monopoly, BAA has now agreed – a bit late in the day, and not without complaint – to the sale of London's second airport, Gatwick. Global Infrastructure Partners, who own a majority stake in London City Airport, are to buy it.

This should be good news for passengers. London City is well liked, but it is a tiny operation compared with Gatwick and it may not be easy for GIP to reproduce its streamlined efficiency here. Still, passengers have every right to hope that the combination of new ownership and the new element of competition will soon bring improvements.

Compared with major foreign airports – the comparison many passengers are qualified to make – BAA's airports in the South-east have long been a disgrace. They are poorly laid out and signposted, with escalators out of order, long queues for security and awkward public transport links. The onus is now on GIP to make Gatwick the standard for BAA to match.

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