Erikka Askeland: Bid to force BAA airport sale is still fogbound

IT HAS been a long game of cat and mouse between airport operator BAA and the Competition Commission. Ever since the competition authority took a dim view of the new Spanish owners of BAA about two years ago, the saga of demand-to-sell versus BAA appeal has been as drawn out as it has been confusing.

After the Supreme Court threw out BAA's appeal against the commission, surely this is the end of it. Not quite. This month and next, the Competition Commission will be taking views on whether the conditions are the same now as they were two years ago when it said BAA must sell Stansted plus one Scottish airport. You can bet that BAA will be arguing that things aren't the same at all.

For one, plans for a third runway at Heathrow have been cancelled. BAA has also curtailed expansion plans at Edinburgh and Glasgow, with the latter's second airport terminal scrapped and Edinburgh's second runway kicked into the long grass. The economic crash has dragged down with it forecasts on the number of passengers flying, too.

The question now is which will it sell - Edinburgh or Glasgow? The answer is: it depends.

Edinburgh is BAA's Scottish "jewel in the crown" airport, which has enjoyed 40 million-worth of fixing up and improving. This, with its growing passenger numbers and healthy rates of inbound and outbound traffic, would either attract a more handsome price, or be the keeper. Glasgow might make a cheap but attractive development opportunity for a hungry investor.

But who would buy either? A suggestion from aviation specialist John Strickland is that the owners of Vancouver Airport might be game.

The consortium behind that, Vancouver Airport Services and US-based Citi Infrastructure Investors, (known as YVRAS) has form in snapping up wee regional UK airports. Last year it bought a 65 per cent stake in Peel Airports, owner of Liverpool John Lennon, Robin Hood Doncaster and Durham Tees Valley.

The acquisition was a reaction after having been stung in the contest to buy Gatwick - another airport the Competition Commission forced BAA to sell. BAA kicked YVRAS's 1.18bn bid out, a move which Citi said was "bizarre in the extreme".

"To remove one bidder at this stage, therefore reducing the owner's position of leverage, is extraordinary and puzzling," it said at the time. Instead BAA took the 1.5bn offer from the Credit Suisse and GE joint venture, Global Infrastructure Investors.

There were rumours that BAA wasn't having YVRAS for personal reasons. This was mainly because of the involvement of Juan Bejar, a former head of the infrastructure arm at Ferrovial, BAA's Spanish owner. He had acrimoniously jumped ship to run YVRAS's bid for Gatwick. One source was quoted as saying: "Ferrovial was never going to sell Gatwick to Citi while Juan Bejar was on board.''

If Ferrovial took umbrage at YVRAS's bid last time because of Bejar, he has moved on - clearing the way for a bid for a Scottish airport.

A tie-up between Vancouver and Glasgow or Edinburgh airports would make sense, thanks to the close cultural ties between the two nations. YVRAS motto is: "We invest in airports we manage", which should be an appealing proposition to the Scottish government, desperate to attract more direct routes to Scotland.

The only turbulence now expected in the sale is still the question of whether it goes ahead at all. Most believe BAA's pleas that the UK aviation landscape has changed dramatically will fall on deaf ears at the Competition Commission. But BAA still has one path of appeal left to it in Europe, which it might doggedly follow, if only for the chance of selling in a better market.

Ferrovial could very well ask why the commission started hounding BAA for a big break up only after it bought in. The question remains unanswered.

Pleased by levels of investment and smooth running, the business community in Scotland has been sanguine about BAA owning all its major airports, Spanish owners or not. But competition between Glasgow and Edinburgh is coming, eventually, and it should be welcomed.