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FOCUS-Heathrow stake sale opens the door for a resurgence in airport deals

Credit: REUTERS/David Moir

By Andres Gonzalez, Emma-Victoria Farr and Elisa Anzolin

LONDON/FRANKFURT, Dec 1 (Reuters) - In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, a rebound in travel and rising interest rates is leading some airport owners and operators to sell up after a dearth of dealmaking in the sector.

After Spanish infrastructure giant Ferrovial FERF.ASrevealed a near $3 billion deal to sell its 25% stake in Britain's busiest airport Heathrow on Tuesday, a slew of other airports across Europe could be up for sale in 2024, according to bankers, investors and industry sources.

"There are green shoots of airports investments coming back to the market as post-Covid passenger demand recovers," said Andras Kranicz, head of infrastructure finance, EMEA at BNP Paribas.

Among the largest of the airports that may see a change of ownership as soon as 2024, is Edinburgh whose U.S.-based owner Global Infrastructure Partners (GIP) is working on the sale of its majority stake in a process that may value the airport at over 2.5 billion euros ($2.72 billion), according to sources close to the situation.

GIP declined to comment.

AGS Airports, which oversees operations at Aberdeen, Glasgow, and Southampton airports and is owned by Australia's Macquarie and Spain's Ferrovial, may also follow, two people with knowledge of the plans said on Friday.

Ferrovial and Macquarie declined to comment.

Until recently there has been a dearth of deals in the sector which has faced headwinds such as rising interest rates and environmental concerns that have dampened valuations, investors and industry sources said.

Even including the sale of Heathrow, this year is the slowest for airport transactions in the past decade, totalling $5.9 billion globally to date, according to Dealogic data.

"Following the COVID-19 pandemic, (there has been) a change of perception in the investment community," said Agata Lyznik, spokesperson for trade association the Airports Council International (ACI) World.

"Airports as an asset class are now deemed more risky, given the unprecedented impact the pandemic has wrought on the aviation industry."

That means for some investors who have owned these assets for many years, now is the right time to sell out. Investors like Macquarie and GIP bought their stakes in European airports almost a decade ago and are now reaching the end of their usual investment holding period.

Among investors mulling their options are France-based Ardian and Credit Agricole Assurance, minority owners of 2i Aeroporti, which has a stake in the operator of Milan's Linate and Malpensa airports, according to three sources close to the matter. They have hired Mediobanca MDBI.MI and Credit Agricole CAGR.PA to find a buyer for a sale of their 49% stake in the company, the people said.

Ardian and Credit Agricole declined to comment.

Catania's airport operator SAC has hired Mediobanca and law firm Gianni & Origoni to assist in its "preparatory and operational phase" of a privatisation process, SAC Chief Executive Nico Torrisi said in an emailed statement.

Mediobanca declined to comment.

VALUATIONS PRESSURED, SELLERS LINE UP

Buoying demand is booming airport travel in the wake of the pandemic combined with pent-up dealmaking hobbled by travel bans.

Next year is expected to be a milestone for global passenger traffic as figures reach 9.4 billion in 2024, surpassing the 9.2 billion passengers prior to the pandemic in 2019, according to ACI.

Deal activity is heating up particularly around European regional airports, which are relatively cheaper and easier to finance for potential buyers than huge hubs, one industry source said, who declined to be identified because the talks are private.

Valuations that bidders might pay for airports are expected to be far lower than the 20 times earnings before interest, tax, depreciation and amortization (EBITDA) multiple paid for Gatwick airport in 2018, the sources said.

Heathrow's sale valued the airport at 14.3 times EBITDA, according to JP Morgan analysis published on Wednesday.

UK's Esken ESKN.L, owner of regional Southend Airport, said in June it had started a process for the sale of the airport.

Industrial buyers are interested in the sector too. France's Vinci SGEF.PA, recently said its M&A team is "very busy". In October, Vinci and Australian IFM Global Infrastructure Fund were selected as preferred investors in a planned aviation hub for central and eastern Europe where they may invest up to 8 billion zlotys ($1.91 billion).

On Thursday, Hungary's state-owned Corvinus and Vinci Airports the European Commission of a proposed joint takeover of Budapest's airport, according to a document posted on the EU website.

($1 = 0.9184 euros)

(Reporting by Emma-Victoria Farr, Andres Gonzalez, Elisa Anzolin, additional reporting by Joanna Plucinska, Mathieu Rosemain, Editing by Anousha Sakoui and Elaine Hardcastle)

((emma-victoria.farr@thomsonreuters.com;))

The views and opinions expressed herein are the views and opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Nasdaq, Inc.

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