Spanish contractor could pay off airports debt and stymie monopoly criticism

Spanish contractor could pay off airports debt and stymie monopoly critics

If I were Rafael del Pino, the 87-year-old billionaire chairman of Spanish construction conglomerate Ferrovial, which owns airports operator BAA, I would toy with just one idea over the next few weeks: selling Gatwick.

April is going to be pretty rough for Ferrovial. Its bankers, Citi and Royal Bank of Scotland, have been cornered into refinancing £11bn of BAA’s debt – Ferrovial has struggled to meet the interest payments – in the middle of extraordinarily tight markets. The banks will significantly soften the terms, meaning that interest repayments will be more manageable, but still expensive.

Then there is the “emerging thinking” report of the UK Competition Commission inquiry into concerns over BAA’s near-monopolies in the South-east and Scotland, also due in April. No informed observer believes that the report will say anything less dramatic than that BAA should sell at least one airport in both areas, although the commission will not finalise its findings until the end of the year.

Selling Gatwick would surely fit the bill. Del Pino should run a beauty parade of bankers as soon as possible – the potential of a £5bn auction in the transaction-starved mergers and acquisitions market would surely put some downward pressure on investment banks’ extortionate fees.

And Gatwick would still fetch that £5bn pricetag. It’s a money-spinner, and infrastructure funds have cash to burn. Private equity players are cottoning on to partnering with rivals and trade players – and this is one cash cow they simply cannot afford to miss out on.

In reputation terms, the move would do Ferrovial a power of good – jumping before it may be pushed. Also, every negative business report about the airports would no longer start off by stressing Ferrovial’s monopoly power.

Most importantly, Ferrovial would nearly halve that nasty debt. And, to top it all off, del Pino would still have the world’s foremost airport in Heathrow.