Friday, April 04, 2008

House Points: Heathrow Terminal 5

Today's House Points column from Liberal Democrat News.

Flights of fancy

At Heathrow flights were cancelled, travellers were stranded, checking in was suspended and 19,000 bags were separated from their owners. The Sunday papers reported that Department for Transport inspectors had managed to bypass security checks on nine occasions during trials of Terminal 5’s new systems and that its alarm system was not working properly.

At Westminster, not surprisingly, there was an urgent question on all this. But where was the transport secretary?

Ruth Kelly - for it is she - was far away in Durham, launching Labour’s campaign for the North East council elections. Quite by coincidence, she also announced a £340m scheme to improve the A1 in North Yorkshire.

Or it may have been embarrassment that kept her away. She is on record as saying that the new Terminal 5 "exhausts superlatives." At its launch she said it "sends out a message that together we are working to make Heathrow a world-class airport again."

Though that was no more laughable than the claim by Willie Walsh, the chief executive of British Airways, that the building is "an extremely sophisticated baggage system with a terminal built around it."

Whatever the reason for Kelly’s absence, it fell to Jim Fitzpatrick to answer the question, though he did his best to avoid mentioning security at all. And he emphasised that the Terminal 5 project, which Ruth Kelly was once so keen to be associated with, is a wholly private sector affair.

Not that this will necessarily get the government of the hook. In his best Private Fraser mode ("We‘re all doomed"), Vince Cable reminded Fitzpatrick that the British Airport Authority (Heathrow’s owner) has been bought by a Spanish building group that has been widely reported as having problems refinancing its debts.

Norman Baker spoke up for the railways, contrasting the fiasco at Heathrow with the success of the new St Pancras. And he is right: the queues for domestic flights are a condemnation of the way the rail network is run.

These days fares are so prohibitive that few people can just turn up first thing in the morning and buy a train ticket. You have to book in advance and, many people reason, in that case you may as well fly.

If you see Ruth Kelly, do tell her this.

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