Arrogance is key problem for BAA

Eighteen months before BAA was privatised in 1987, I was commissioned by a political lobbying PR firm to write anonymously a 10,000 word monograph on why the airport group should not be broken up when it was floated on the stock exchange.

Anthony Hilton
Anthony Hilton

I had access to BAA's traffic growth projections and its expansion plans to cope with it. Stansted's development and Terminals Four and Five were in that report 22 years ago. They were all foreseen by BAA management at the time.

There was scarcely a suggestion anywhere that BAA's monopoly should be ended when the group was sold off. Everyone accepted the idea that it allowed for sensible long-term planning, and gave the ability to carry the costs of Stansted, which ran at a loss for years.

The report also successfully glossed over the issue of the neglect of Gatwick, where - unbeknown to most people - the local Tory MP in the 1960s, Geoffrey Johnson Smith, had quietly extracted a promise that there would be no second runway for 60 years in return for muting opposition to the new North terminal. For the record that runs out, I think, in 2019.

So how has it gone so wrong? BAA is probably now Britain's most disliked company. Indeed, its CEO said this week he thought the recent recommendation that it should be broken up would most likely go through because of 'the weight of public opinion' backing it. It has lost the public, although there was no shortage of top advice. Only a few years ago its in-house spinner was Des Wilson, the founder of Shelter, a man totally plugged into the public mood. After that came Ian Hargreaves, one-time editor of The Independent and also one of the best brains in the business.

Yet Hargreaves provided a clue. He told me once that the intellectual rigour would not be out of place in an Oxford common room. That was the problem - arrogance. In that old civil service/nationalised industry tradition the company knew best. Customers, be they airlines or passengers, would take what they were given.

It has taken a quarter of a century but now BAA is paying the price.

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