Pri­va­tize air­ports? Ter­ri­ble idea!

The Compass - - Editorial -

If I were a po­ten­tial in­vestor, I’d say, “Yes please, sign me up right away.”

As an air­line pas­sen­ger? Not on your life.

The fed­eral gov­ern­ment is mulling sell­ing off the coun­try’s air­ports: right now, the idea seems to be pri­va­tiz­ing eight of the coun­try’s largest air­ports, the cash-cow crown jew­els, for a multi-bil­lion-dol­lar cash pay­out.

But sell­ing air­ports is, to put it bluntly, a stupid idea — un­less you’re some­one who never, ever has to fly.

The end re­sult? The new own­ers would gouge the skin right off of our backs, and off the backs of the na­tion’s air­lines as well.

And there wouldn’t be a thing we could do about it.

The rea­son’s pretty clear: just have a look at how most air­ports are per­form­ing now, as non­profit ven­tures. (Non-profit air­port cor­po­ra­tions lease fed­eral air­port as­sets, charg­ing land­ing fees, park­ing fees, pas­sen­ger fees, air­craft park­ing fees, $2.50 bot­tled water and any­thing else you can think of over­charg­ing for.)

As soon as an air­port reaches a cer­tain size, it’s such a li­cence to print money that the air­port ad­min­is­tra­tions have trou­ble with find­ing ways to spend the money fast enough. The big­ger the air­port, the more money there is com­ing in to spend — and the more out­landish the con­cep­tions there are to spend it on.

Spend it, they do: on new ac­cess roads, soar­ing glass atri­ums, round­abouts, stone floor­ing, ac­cent wa­ter­fall walls, on-site ho­tel leases — I think most of the air­port au­thor­i­ties must have some­one on staff whose whole job is to think of new ways to spend what’s com­ing. Go to any ma­jor air­port in this coun­try, and the first thing you’ll no­tice is that not one of them, not one, is ever with­out some form of on­go­ing con­struc­tion. If you’re not build­ing a wall, you’re tearing it down.

But that’s OK — pas­sen­gers have lots of money to share, es­pe­cially when the one and only agency set­ting fees is the in­di­vid­ual air­port it­self.

Think about it: if you’re a pas­sen­ger de­part­ing from Pear­son in Toronto, you’re pay­ing a $25 air­port im­prove­ment fee just to walk through the ter­mi­nal. Do the same stroll through the air­port in St. John’s, and it’s $30. Hal­i­fax? $25. Mean­while, air­lines are be­ing charged, too: it’s com­pletely demo­cratic, everyone pays through the nose.

As true mo­nop­o­lies, air­ports make the most of their pow­ers: if you want a sand­wich, you’re go­ing to pay twice what it would cost any­where else. If you’re go­ing to sell a sand­wich, it’s hard to imag­ine how much your rent is go­ing to be.

When you’re the only game in town, you set your own prices — and if you were to be the only pri­va­tized game in town, you can bet that the prices would in­clude the po­ten­tial for big prof­its, too.

Think about it: for there to be any­thing like com­pe­ti­tion in the air­port busi­ness, you’d have to have the pock­ets to build an­other air­port. The fed­eral gov­ern­ment, build­ing our na­tional air­ports, was able to ob­tain — of­ten, by us­ing pow­ers of ex­pro­pri­a­tion not avail­able to pri­vate op­er­a­tors — blocks of land close to ci­ties that were large enough to hold an air­field.

That kind of land assem­bly, for any­one new to the game, would not only be pro­hib­i­tively ex­pen­sive, in most cases, it would be nigh-on im­pos­si­ble.

Where would you put a new Van­cou­ver air­port, or a new Toronto op­tion?

Even if you were able to find the land, you wouldn’t be able to fi­nance the pur­chase.

Sell off the big­gest air­ports as mo­nop­o­lies, es­sen­tially in per­pe­tu­ity? Not only would you be sell­ing some­one the keys to the mint, you’d be of­fer­ing up air­line cus­tomers for an even-greater fis­cal shear­ing. No thanks. Rus­sell Wanger­sky is TC Me­dia’s At­lantic re­gional columnist. He can be reached at rus­sell.wanger­ Twit­ter: @Wanger­sky.

Rus­sell Wanger­sky Eastern Pas­sages

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