Martyn McLaughlin: Could the US president be the saviour of struggling Prestwick Airport?

The idea of Donald Trump buying the struggling Prestwick Airport is fanciful, but should not be ruled out, writes Martyn McLaughlin.

Could Donald Trump front a deal to buy Glasgow Prestwick Airport? Picture: SWNS
Could Donald Trump front a deal to buy Glasgow Prestwick Airport? Picture: SWNS

The recent disclosure that Glasgow Prestwick Airport could soon return to private ownership has taken many observers by surprise.

Since it was bought by the Scottish Government for £1 four years ago, saving it from closure, the Ayrshire hub has not undergone the renaissance many had hoped for. By contrast, it remains mired in the red, running up annual losses of £8.7 million last year with revenue on the decline. And yet, this beleaguered enterprise is, in the eyes of at one beholder at least, an attractive commercial proposition.

As revealed at the weekend by my colleague, transport correspondent Alastair Dalton, a potential buyer from Prestwick has been found. It is understood a formal sales procedure will commence in the coming weeks. Whoever takes over will have to the repay the loans made to the airport by the Scottish Government, which attract a market rate of interest. It is a considerable undertaking. The loan amount currently stands at £30.9m. Whoever is interested in Prestwick will require deep pockets and a long-term commitment.

Such people are in short supply, but the prospect of a sale has woken from its slumber a longstanding fixture of the social media rumour mill; namely, that there is one individual with a considerable presence in South Ayrshire with more reason that most to take the airport off the government’s hands – the US president.

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It is not the first time that Donald Trump has been linked with taking over Prestwick. He acquired Turnberry, the renowned golf and hotel resort, six months after the government buyout. Fast forward another six months and he was standing side by side with Iain Cochrane, the then chief executive of Prestwick, at a joint press conference inside its 747 hangar. Many predicted the event was going to unveil Mr Trump as the airport’s new custodian; in the end, it was designed to publicise the synergies between the two entities.

Since then, Turnberry and Prestwick have collaborated on areas of mutual interest. As I wrote in yesterday’s Scotsman, Mr Trump’s firm was even asked by the airport this summer to “pitch” to a prospective new airline in Copenhagen. But could such co-operation extend to a wholesale takeover of Prestwick?

As Mr Trump himself has demonstrated, outlandish notions can become reality. Both parties need as much help as they can get to make money. Mr Trump has provided interest-free loans totalling £112m to Turnberry, bankrolling an extensive revamp which, it is generally agreed, has further improved an already revered visitor destination. But it has yet to turn a profit under his stewardship, with losses more than doubling last year to £17.6m.

Turnberry’s remote location commands much of its appeal, but it is also a hindrance. Hugging the coastline of the Firth of Clyde, it is surrounded by limited transport infrastructure. Prestwick, a transatlantic gateway for more than a half a century, has just one remaining scheduled passenger carrier, and it is understood its contract with Ryanair is due to expire early next year.

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Mr Trump and his businesses may believe they could entice airlines from the US and across Europe, particularly if they positioned Turnberry and Prestwick at the heart of the so-called ‘Trump Triangle’, a cluster of resorts which takes in Trump International Golf Links in Aberdeenshire and Trump Doonbeg in County Clare.

But what does the man himself think? Last year, I interviewed George Sorial, the executive vice president of the Trump Organisation, who following Mr Trump’s inauguration, has also assumed the role of its chief compliance counsel. During our conversation, I asked him if the Trump Organisation had any aspirations to invest in the airport directly. The following is a transcript of his reply.

“The term, ‘investment’, that’s a very broad term. Will we continue to help them? Of course we will. If there’s anything we can do to promote the airport, we will certainly continue to use it, and we will recommend that anyone else who’s coming to the area use the airport, because our experience with them has been very positive.

“But if you’re asking a specific question about would we invest hard pounds, it’s not something that we’d contemplate at the moment. That’s not ruling out if there was a proposal on the table that made sense, obviously we would evaluate it. But at the moment, nothing like that exists.”

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It was, and probably still is, a case of “mibbes aye, mibbes naw”. Mr Trump’s sudden career change doubtless complicates matters, not least the potential for conflict of interest given Prestwick’s sizeable custom from the US military.

But there is one final, not insignificant issue to throw into the mix; Mr Trump is no stranger to the aviation industry. In 1988, he bought over Eastern Airlines, a North American firm which pioneered shuttle services between Boston, New York, and Washington. Its new owner renamed it Trump Shuttle and set about an expansive modernisation programme of its ageing Boeing 727 fleet, installing chrome seat belts, maple bulkheads and faux marble bathrooms. Its flight attendants wear asked to wear real pearl necklaces. When the cost was shown to be prohibitive, they were substituted with fake strands.

By 1990, Mr Trump had defaulted on his loans, and the airline was turned over to creditors. Perhaps Prestwick’s saviour is not so close to home after all.