'It's just a barmy idea, the sort of idea that theoretical economists have ... the idea of just auctioning slots at this airport as the only airport in the world that's auctioning slots would simply be a totally unworkable system.' Tony Tyler, Cathay Pacific Airways, Journal of Intellect and Science, Nov 6 'We've applied for landing slots for summer, but the congestion is as bad [at Heathrow] as it was in Kai Tak, so we may have to find some other way to get slots.' David Turnbull, Cathay Pacific Airways, South China Morning Post, Nov 6 NOW LET US hazard a few guesses as to how Mr Turnbull might find some other way to get these slots. Perhaps he could try confronting the people who dispense them by arming himself with a sawn-off shotgun: 'This is a stick-up. Pass 'em over.' No, perhaps not. Well, then perhaps he could try walking into their offices to say: 'I want slots and if you don't give them to me, I'm going to sit down on your floor and burst into such tears that I'll flood this room to the ceiling and then we'll all drown, so there.' Hmmm ... yes, a touch unlikely. Thus perhaps what he had in mind was to wait for an opportunity to bid for landing slots at Heathrow, sort of like an auction, you know. Hello there, Mr Tyler. May I introduce you to Mr Turnbull? It seems the two of you have not yet met. Okay, okay, I confess. I am the theoretical economist with the barmy idea. I proposed it on Friday at a debate at the Foreign Correspondents' Club on airport charges and I think it is a wonderful idea. Let all airlines fly here that want to fly here but make them bid against each other for landing slots. It will make Chek Lap Kok the aviation hub of the region and give us a winner in our investment in the airport. But it is not only theoretical economists who are looking at this idea. European airports, which find landing slots steadily becoming scarcer relative to demand and want to make better use of them, are beginning to look at it too, particularly the big ones such as Heathrow. In fact, trading in landing slots is already a feature of life at Heathrow. The practice is shrouded in secrecy as it is banned by edict from Brussels but airlines get around this through subterfuges such as 'exchanging' one slot for another, which Brussels permits. One slot, however, is invariably during a valuable peak hour and the other a late night one made attractive only through an accompanying quiet payment. This grey market serves to make allocation of landing slots more efficient but does not entirely address the underlying problem. Airlines pay for their slots only if they use them and therefore have no great incentive to make sure they use them all. Some of the slots remain unused, even at congested airports. Thus a recent 400-page report written for the European Commission by a London-based consultancy, National Economic Research Associates, estimates that the 20 busiest airports in Europe could accommodate 52 million more passengers a year by 2007, a 7 per cent increase, if slot trading were given official approval. The report said that this could produce lower airfares as well as result in some big airports, such as Heathrow and Gatwick, servicing long-haul flights exclusively, leaving short haul to regional airports. That would certainly make it easier for Mr Turnbull to buy his Heathrow slots although he might not welcome lower airfares. Cathay Pacific prefers to sting its passengers on fares (yours truly included on a flight to London as you read this). I am prepared to countenance an argument Mr Tyler made to me at the FCC debate on Friday that deregulation must necessarily be later in coming to air travel than it has to telecommunications because you say only a few rude words and dial again when your connection on a phone call is broken but you could be dead if an equipment malfunction occurs on a flight. I do not entirely buy it, mind you. I think there can be good ways of enforcing air safety under deregulation too. But the point here is that this one deregulation measure, auctioning of landing slots, is far from a barmy idea when it is under serious consideration by the European Commission and could help Cathay Pacific itself get the landing slots it wants at Heathrow. And let me tell you something more. We here in Hong Kong will eventually adopt this barmy idea, later than other airports will and with a good deal of kicking and screaming by vested interests, but it will inevitably come our way.