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Russell Wangersky: Privatize airports? Terrible idea!

A screenshot from a video showcasing construction work at St. John's International Airport. The video is at <a href="http://bit.ly/1jAVaa6%20" target="_self">http://bit.ly/1jAVaa6 </a>
A screenshot from a video showcasing construction work at St. John's International Airport. The video is at <a href="http://bit.ly/1jAVaa6%20" target="_self">http://bit.ly/1jAVaa6 </a>

If I were a potential investor, I’d say, “Yes please, sign me up right away.” As an airline passenger? Not on your life.

Russell Wangersky

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 non-profit 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.wangersky@tc.tc — Twitter: @Wangersky.

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