Your first impression of a BAA airport? Almost certainly the characteristic black-on-yellow signage. "Departures" the notice will say, next to a little icon of a plane taking off. The company holds the copyright on the particular combination of colour, typeface, icons and arrows used to direct passengers around its airports.
BAA, owned by the Spanish consortium Ferrovial, divested itself of Gatwick airport in 2009 in the vain hope that it would be able to avoid further forced sales. Gatwick's new owner, Global Infrastructure Partners, soon found itself investing in 1,000 fresh signs (this time yellow on black) to replace those belonging to BAA.
At the same time, the experience of arriving at and flying from "Your London Airport", as Gatwick likes to be known, is improving. Security queues are shorter, immigration areas are being revamped, and earlier this year new dedicated "kids' zones" were introduced for families.
BAA still operates Aberdeen, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Southampton and Stansted airports, as well as Heathrow, the jewel in UK aviation's crown. When Stansted's new terminal building opened in 1991, BAA had a near-monopoly on air travel in the London area. Judged on the Gatwick experience, the Competition Commission's ruling that the company must sell off Stansted and either Edinburgh or Glasgow airports should be good news for British travellers.
Despite BAA's investment of £5bn in infrastructure since 2006, the perception has long been that the company was too content with its dominant position in the marketplace to invest enough in a vital area: the passenger experience.
New signs at Stansted – of whatever colour – could be the fresh start our airports need.
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