Privatised Maastricht eyes low-cost and cargo airlines

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State-owned Maastricht Aachen Airport is planning to target low-cost carriers and cargo growth as the Dutch national Government and Province of Limburg prepare to sell their majority stake in the airport to Omniport of Scotland and leading Dutch construction company Dura Vermeer.

The consortium have reached an agreement “on the main points” of the sale with the Dutch state and province to acquire the shares. The deal will go before the shareholders’ meeting or the airport holding company Holding Businesspark Luchthaven Maastricht on 1 July and is expected to close on 2 July.

Omniport, which holds a majority interest in UK airport Norwich but recently sold its interest in Glasgow Prestwick, and Dura Vermeer have agreed to buy a 100% shareholding for €5 million ($6 million) and to invest €7.5 million into the airport while taking on the restructuring losses anticipated for 2004. The consortium will pay €3.5 million for the 70%. If the remaining local government shareholders – Maastricht municipal government, NV Industriebank LIOF and the Chamber of Commerce for South Limburg – decide to sell their shareholding the other €2.5 million will go toward the 30%.

The decision follows on from long-term plans by the national Government to withdraw from ownership of regional airports.

Airport managing director Jan Tindemans points out that the regional government had the option to buy the national Government’s shareholding in the airport but decided against it. He says that the Province of Limburg would be “wearing too many hats” if it owned the majority stake as well as acted as regulator.

Under the new ownership Tindemans sees opportunities for growth in low-cost operations at Maastricht. The airport generates most of its earnings from cargo and charter operations. He points out: “There is a strong market for charter, but I think the biggest growth will be low-cost and cargo.”

The airport currently has limited service from low-cost carriers with only Dutch low-cost operator Vbird and some eastern European low-cost carriers serving it. From early 2003 until January this year, Irish no-frills airline Ryanair offered services to the airport from London Stansted but cancelled the route because yields were too low.

Tindemans stresses that the state’s decision to privatise the airport came long before the European Commission’s Brussels South Charleroi airport ruling restricting state subsidises at regional airports. But he says: “It certainly makes it easier for the airport if it is privately owned to do business with low-cost airlines.”

Maastricht reported operating losses of €1 billion in 2003 and expects to have “bigger losses” in 2004.