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Cobham eyes spin off Australian unit ahead of buyout

QantasLink and resource charter operator Cobham Aviation Services Australia looks likely to be sold after its UK parent company agreed to a £4 billion ($5 billion) takeover deal with US private equity firm Advent International.

Publicly listed Cobham's board recommended the all-cash takeover bid on July 25 to shareholders ahead of an extraordinary general meeting set for mid-September.

In announcing the deal, the defence services company says that it "has commenced a strategic review of the Australian operations of the Aviation Services Sector to decide how best to optimise value in the interests of Cobham and its stakeholders."

The Australian operation's Airline Services division operates Qantas's 20 Boeing 717s under the QantasLink banner, as well as four BAe 146 Freighters for its cargo unit.

The 717 contract was extended in 2016 for 10 more years, although Qantas has taken back management of the aircraft's base maintenance, effectively leaving Cobham as the provider of the crew to operate them.

Under its Regional Services division, Cobham Aviation Services Australia also operates nine Bae 146s and Avro RJs and one Embraer 190 on resource charter contracts. It is also due to take delivery of its first de Havilland Canada Q400 in the coming weeks.

Chevron Australia, Oz Minerals and Minara Resources are its major clients in that market, and it operates from bases in Perth and Adelaide.

Surveillance Australia is another unit of Cobham's Australian operations that operates 11 Dash 8 surveillance aircraft on behalf of the Australian Border Force, and four Bombardier CL604 Challengers for the Australian Maritime Safety Authority on search and rescue missions.

While the company has not commented on the review, it appears likely that the civil-focused business may be spun-off, while the government businesses could be retained.

The potential sale of the passenger units comes amid some turbulence in the resource charter market, with Qantas purchasing a 19.9% stake in Alliance Airlines in February and signalling plans to take control of the Brisbane-based charter-focused operator if it is granted regulatory clearance to do so.

That could rule Qantas out of any bidding war for the unit, despite its interest as the major client of the airline services division.

At the same time, there have been some signals that embattled helicopter operator Bristow Group could sell its Darwin-based regional airline, Airnorth, as it works through a Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection restructuring.

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