UNCERTAINTY hangs over the future of Scotland’s fourth- largest airport after its owner signalled a possible sale – just as its main rival may also be about to change hands.
It has emerged that the New Zealand-based Infratil signalled it may put Prestwick on the market, two days before the surprise announcement last Friday that BAA’s enforced sale of Edinburgh or Glasgow will be accelerated.
Experts believe Glasgow is more likely to be sold, with its new owner expected to aggressively woo airlines such as Ryanair, which accounts for nearly all of Prestwick’s flights.
Infratil chief executive Marko Bogoievski said: “Glasgow [Prestwick] isn’t performing. It’s a difficult asset to see in the portfolio in the long term.” He said the firm might spend the proceeds on other airports or develop its energy business in Australia and New Zealand, which offered more reliable earnings.
His comments come after the Ayrshire airport’s passenger numbers slumped by nearly one-third from two million to 1.4 million in two years. Prestwick, and Manston in Kent, Infratil’s other UK airport, made a combined loss of £6 million in the year to March.
Infratil chiefs previously criticised Prestwick’s “shambolic” terminal seven years ago, which triggered major improvements.
Ryanair chief executive Michael O’Leary has said it might operate up to 40 summer routes from Glasgow should that airport be sold, as he hopes to get a better deal than from BAA.
Ryanair operates 24 winter routes from Prestwick and 35 from Edinburgh. A key question is whether Prestwick would remain viable if Ryanair scaled back its operations there and other airlines did not take its place.
However, one of the Ryanair’s main aircraft maintenance bases is at Prestwick, and the airport still has a sizeable, if shrinking air cargo operation. Analysts said the possible sale of both Prestwick and Glasgow could pose major problems for the former.
John Strickland, of JLS Consulting, said: “There will be more competition between the three Central Belt airports after one of the BAA ones has been sold.
“Prestwick has relied largely on Ryanair for its business, which has made it difficult for the airport because the airline is very cost-focused and it can be challenging to get sufficient return. It is also challenging economic times, when holiday passenger volumes have suffered.”
Mr Strickland said Prestwick had also suffered after Ryanair switched from routes with big-spending visitors stocking up on duty free – such as Scandinavia – to holiday destinations for lower-spending Scots.
Prestwick – 30 miles south of Glasgow – was bought by Infratil ten years ago from Perth-based Stagecoach.
The airport reinvented itself to serve the no-frills airline after losing its unique status as Scotland’s sole transatlantic gateway in the 1980s.
That developed from Prestwick providing a key staging post for aircraft refuelling en route to or from the Americas.
Elvis Presley set foot on British soil for the only time during one such stop, while his US army troop carrier was heading for Germany in 1960.