ANALYSIS: BAA steps up aviation revival drive - News that BAA is to reinstate its top comms position after an 18-month hiatus flags up the many challenges facing the recovering aviation sector, says Andy Allen

If the British Airports Authority had decided to go about filling its resurrected PR and corporate affairs director post six months ago, it is reasonable to assume applicants would have taken a deep breath before applying.

11 September and foot-and-mouth disease had decimated Britain's tourist industry. British Airways cut 7,000 jobs (ten per cent of the workforce) while Virgin Atlantic, which had never made staff redundant, shed 1,200 in response to slumping demand.

Now, the picture is brighter. Passenger figures for March were 3.4 per cent higher than a year earlier. In the second consecutive increase, Stansted, Edinburgh and Glasgow did particularly well. Heathrow rose slightly while Gatwick fell. BAA this week announced £8bn of investment to accomodate the expected surge in numbers over the next decade.

No longer are aviation PROs hamstrung, as in the aftermath of 11 September, by considerations of discretion. Ad and PR campaigns shelved in the interests of taste are now being safely carried out. The Government go-ahead for Heathrow's Terminal 5 last November was another boost.

Also it looks as if the current Civil Aviation Authority review of airport fees will allow BAA to increase its charges by as much as 30 per cent - still below main European fees, which can be up to double those in the UK.

There remain, however, storm clouds on the horizon for Britain's largest airport operator, and its new corporate and PA director - currently being recruited (PRWeek, 19 April). The post has lain vacant since CSR guru and former Liberal Democrats comms chief Des Wilson held the brief up until early last year.

According to Philip Butterworth-Hayes, Jane's Airport Review founding editor, the biggest threat to the reputation of British hubs lurks offshore in the shape of Frankfurt, Amsterdam Schipol and, most seriously, Paris's Charles de Gaulle airport.

The main PR challenge facing BAA, he claims, is to entice passengers back to their airports as quickly as possible. Heathrow is particularly important as it acts as a hub for incoming longhaul flights to link up with European destinations. It is now by far Europe's biggest airport, but others are gaining ground.

And while the Government's Terminal 5 decision came as a blessing, Butterworth-Hayes says that what the airport really needs is more runways. BAA had to lobby and campaign hard for 15 years to secure permission for a new terminal on waste ground between two existing runways.

BAA head of media relations Caroline Corfield describes this lag as, in PR terms 'challenging,' and agrees that BAA regards the large foreign competitors as its fiercest rivals (though she insists that promoting efforts towards sustainability is the biggest PR challenge facing BAA).

Corfield is anxious to focus on inevitable local campaigns that will be brought to bear on any plans for airport expansions. BAA maintains community affairs staff at all of its airports, but it is small wonder that with so much hanging on government approval, a BAA source told PR Week that 'political connections' would be a requirement for the reinstated role.

Nor is it surprising, given how passenger numbers are expected to double in the next 20 years, that CEO Mike Hodgkinson describes his task as giving passengers the 'best experience, under the circumstances'.

These circumstances will become more trying with time for other reasons, too. Butterworth-Hayes believes the only way the major airlines can respond to falling margins is to set up low-cost variants - as bmi british midland has just done with bmibaby.

The message being put out by BAA is that so far the low-cost phenomenon has been 'a big plus' for the company - with Stansted, Edinburgh and Glasgow, and more recently, Gatwick, all benefiting from the presence of low-cost carriers. But that is precarious.

Even major airlines are nervous about fee increases, which will hit low-cost airlines comparatively hard. In March, BA and Virgin Atlantic made clear to journalists their fury at the proposed increase in charges - closely linked to a decision by the CAA not to force BAA to subsidise landing charges with retail profits. In the year to March 2001, net UK airport retail income was £470m. The airlines branded the CAA's plans 'absurd' and claimed they would inevitably lead to higher fares. easyJet, long known for aggressive PR aimed at bigger carriers, agrees.

The airline uses all three Scottish BAA airports but in England operates at Luton and Liverpool - non-BAA airports. PRO Samantha Day says its team is campaigning on the claim that such a price hike would be 'disastrous' and would force easyJet to reconsider its use of BAA sites: 'We're low-cost - there's only so much that can be passed on to the passenger,' she says.

A further PR battle looming for BAA is outlined by Butterworth-Hayes, who says the new comms chief will have to tackle BAA's growing reputation for 'airports that are more interested in filling shopping malls than processing passengers efficiently'

Corfield denies this is the case and says that since the EU abolished duty free sales the issue has not arisen in media coverage.

Given the PR muscle available to the airlines, which will be stung by BAA not using retail profits to subsidise airport fees, journalists may well find their attention drawn increasingly to these profits.

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