Wednesday 22 December 2010

Something In The Air

Over in Comment Is Free, Neil Clark writes:

"The government's objective with this bill is to liberate airport management from political interference … to enable airport operators to respond to the needs of their customers, rather than to the shifting priorities of politicians and officials," declared the Earl of Caithness as he moved the Thatcher government's 1986 airports bill in the House of Lords, which was soon to become the 1986 Airports Act. The privatisation of the state-owned British Airport Authority (BAA), we were told, would ensure that "better services are provided for all airline passengers".

I wonder if the Earl of Caithness (or even Margaret Thatcher herself), would have the courage to pop down to Hounslow and tell that to the tens of thousands of holidaymakers stranded at the BAA-owned Heathrow airport for the past three days. Even before this week's events, our privatised airports, with their shortage of public seating, their lack of reasonably priced food and drink outlets, and their depressing, unfriendly atmosphere, were an international disgrace.

But their spectacular failure to adequately deal with recent snowfalls has surely exposed to all but the most fanatical free marketeers, the enormous price we pay for having our infrastructure in private ownership.

Writing in the Guardian in 2007, the designer Sir Terence Conran told a story that illustrates perfectly the difference between the ethos of a publicly owned infrastructure company and a privately owned one.

Conran revealed that when he was working on the design of the state-owned Heathrow Terminal 1 and the North Terminal of Gatwick airport in the 1960s, he was pressed to make sure that he provided "lots of seating" for the public. Conran contrasted the concern the state-owned airports authority in the 1960s showed for the comfort of the travelling public, to the much more commercial attitude of BAA today, where "every square inch must be turned over to retail space".

Unlike its state-owned predecessor, the privately owned BAA is seemingly guided by just one concern: maximising profits for its Spanish-owned parent company, Ferrovial. That means out with public seating areas, and in with forcing people to pay to sit down in rip-off cafes and restaurants. And it also means, as we saw this week, not ordering anywhere near enough snow ploughs to keep the runways open in the case of extreme weather. BAA is on course to post record profits of over £1bn this year – yet only spent £500,000 on materials and equipment to help clear the runways.

Other privately owned airports have fared poorly, too, this winter: earlier this month, the ex-BAA-owned Gatwick airport – now owned by Global Infrastructure Partners, a private equity fund – closed for two days because of a foot of snow.
It's revealing that one major airport in Britain that does manage to keep its passengers happy is one which is in full public ownership. Manchester airport, owned by local councils, was crowned best regional UK airport earlier this year and currently holds four out of the five major travel awards in the airport industry. And earlier this year, the Guardian reported that it was voted the world's best airport on Twitter.

Thatcherite Conservatives, of course, are not best pleased that this hugely successful airport remains in public ownership. "Next door to my Greater Manchester constituency there is a thriving modern PLC worth £3bn, which remains in the public sector without anyone batting an eyelid," complained Tory MP Graham Brady in the Spectator, adding that "the idea of the state running our utilities, airlines or railways now seems archaic and even faintly ridiculous".

Sorry, but the ridiculous thing is to have profit-hungry multinational companies running things that really are best left to the public sector. Even in capitalist America, airports are run as not-for-profit publicly owned entities. And America's airports, despite having to deal with far more extreme conditions, cope considerably better.

While we can't expect the current pro-privatisation coalition to take the requisite action, there's no reason why Labour – if it is genuinely on the lookout for sensible, popular policies – shouldn't reconsider its position and support the re-nationalisation of our major airports (as well as our equally inefficient privatised railways, which have also come up short in the current "big freeze").

By doing so, the party would be making a clear rejection of the hugely damaging principle that everything in Britain should be run for profit. That principle might work well enough when we're talking about grocery shops in Grantham, but when applied to a country's infrastructure and transport, the results, as we've seen again this week, can be catastrophic.


  1. "Even before this week's events, our privatised airports, with their shortage of public seating, their lack of reasonably priced food and drink outlets, and their depressing, unfriendly atmosphere, were an international disgrace."

    Ouch! But have you been to any American airport? Though I will grant that there are plenty of chairs to sit in in most US airports. But we got you beat on the depressing, unfriendly atmosphere.

  2. As local authorities are about to run out of salt and have failed to keep all the roads open, would this be an argument for their privatization, following similar logic?

  3. Ed, what a very European way of thinking...

    Anonymous, no.