Thursday, September 18, 2008

Psst Brown, Wanna Buy An Airport?

Without so much as a by-your-leave, Gatwick's Spanish owners put a For Sale sign up at the airport. It's now going to the highest bidder. 

The crafty move by Ferrovial will side-step competition fears from the competition commission. 

A major part of the country's infrastructure has just been put up for sale, with no one even bothering to look at what this means for passengers or the UK airport industry and no comment from government.

Businesses are sold off to foreign firms who raise billions on the global money market to finance the deal, to make a fast profit and then the government can wash their hands of them.

Airports should not be something that can be sold and resold like a used car. No one cares about passengers or the airport workers - it's all driven by profit with a supermarket pack 'em in and pile 'em high philosophy. 

But airports are not like supermarkets - the more you pack 'em in and run to very tight schedules, the more the Heathrow effect kicks in, where even the slightest disruption can have a chaotic knock-on effect down the line. 

The competition commission was right to call for the break up of BAA's monopoly. But how was this one company allowed to own so many airports in the first place? 

Gatwick is one of seven owned by the Spanish company, going by the cosy sounding name of the British Airports Authority (BAA). But the money-spinning Heathrow, with its huge retail revenue and lucrative transatlantic business traffic, apparently is not up for grabs.

Gatwick is clearly one of the easiest ones to off-load, without a thought for "putting the needs of customers first".

Now, the hope is another foreign firm will take it over, borrowing the cash from global investment banks and it will be sold on again. Only these days, no one wants to lend the money.

Airports and railways, are an integral and strategic part of the country's infrastructure and, as such, there's a case for public ownership without an eye on profits or shareholders. 

Maybe the government should 'listen to those customers' and create a not-for-profit airport model. If they can spend billions on wars and waste billions on useless IT systems, why not a few bob on an airport?  Or is that too much Labour and not enough New Labour? 

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