Thursday, August 21, 2008

LONDON | Britain‘s competition watchdog said it may force airports operator BAA to sell three of its seven airports across the country - including two in London - following fierce criticism of the company for poor customer service, overcrowding and long delays.

The interim report from the Competition Commission on Wednesday, which argues that problems at London’s Heathrow, Gatwick and Stansted airports are a result of BAA’s monopoly, was harsher than the industry had expected.

The commission said that significant competition issues arose from BAA’s common ownership of the seven airports, which also include Edinburgh, Glasgow and Aberdeen in Scotland and Southampton in southern England.

“This is evident from a large number of factors including its lack of responsiveness to the needs of its airline customers and a lack of initiative in planning capacity,” said Christopher Clarke, chairman of the inquiry. “This has resulted in investment that is not tailored to the requirements of airport users and lower levels and quality of service for both airlines and passengers.”

The commission will now hold consultations with industry players on which two of BAA’s London airports should be sold and which one of Edinburgh or Glasgow should be divested, before it announces its final decision in the first quarter of next year. It will also discuss potential changes to the regulatory framework to improve competition.

Several airlines have long been pushing for the breakup of BAA’s stranglehold on Britain’s airports. The company handles about 90 percent of passenger flights taking off or landing in southeast England and 63 percent of all flights to and from Britain.

BAA, however, was defiant, saying that it has no intention of selling Heathrow, Europe’s largest airport.

Heathrow has been the target of the most virulent criticism from passengers after the botched opening of Terminal 5 earlier this year, when a glitch in the baggage handling system led to thousands of lost bags and hundreds of canceled flights.

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