Snow fight

“Gatwick wins the battle of the snowploughs”. This was the Financial Times headline lauding the fact that – during the UK’s heaviest disruption from snowfall for many years just before Christmas – Gatwick, the country’s second-largest airport, had reaped the benefits of its owner Global Infrastructure Partners’ foresight.

To be specific, the New York-based fund manager had reportedly spent £1 million (€1.2 million; $1.6 million) on snow clearing equipment since acquiring the airport from BAA just over a year prior. This was in contrast to the alleged lack of spending on the UK’s infrastructure generally – including on the much-maligned rail network – which had seen much of it grind to a halt as the weather worsened. While Gatwick initially received criticism for closing for two days at the beginning of December, it was able to salvage its reputation by reopening a day earlier than BAA-owned rival Heathrow.

At the UK’s largest airport, it was rather a different story – with no happy ending. Also in the Financial Times – a day after the proclamation of Gatwick’s victory – came a very different headline: “Britain shamed by Heathrow’s terminal misery”. In this report, Philip Stevens described a “snow-induced standstill” that acted as a “two-fingered jeer to any notion that London’s future is as a global economic hub”.

In the same article, Stevens said that Heathrow “exposes a deeper problem – a culture of private ownership, financial engineering and short-term financial reporting that mitigates against long-term investment in major infrastructure”. But (perhaps forgetting its private ownership?) he also hailed Gatwick as beginning to show “what can be done when an airport pays close attention to the demands of its customers”.

This prompts consideration of whether the most meaningful distinction is simply between good and bad owners of infrastructure assets rather than whether they happen to be public or private. Such considerations could while away the hours as you wait for your snowbound flight to depart.