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Airports: industry trends and key privatisation issues October 2003 Download PDF

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As delegates gather for the 10th Global Airport Development Conference ("GAD") in Vienna this month, the agenda for the airport sector has an air of familiarity, mixed with a degree of uncertainty as to how key long–term issues will evolve. On the one hand the cyclicality of the airline industry to which airports are exposed has been a managerial headache since at least the first major oil crisis in 1973. The privatisation debate has been alive for over two decades since the BAA’s IPO in 1987 and private sector involvement continues to take many different forms to achieve many different objectives.

Even the security issue, brought into its sharpest focus on September 11, has its roots in the historical progress of terrorism as a global phenomenon, in which civil aviation has been seen as high profile but relatively soft target.

Along with the impact of the structure of the airline industry on different types of airports, future airport ownership will also be high on the agenda for delegates at GAD.

Some major issues around privatisation also remain unresolved — how will the pipeline of transactions evolve? Which structures are best suited to deliver financing requirements, encourage operational enhancements and deliver sufficient benefits for investors? An overview of these issues follows.

Hub airports

The fortunes of major airports have been contrasted sharply with those of their principal airline customers. Most major airports have sustained a far lower impact on operating profitability than home–based carriers, as demonstrated by contrasting some of the European airports and their home–base carriers.

This reinforces the view, which for example has influenced stock market performance of listed airports that the attractiveness of airport assets is in their "utility plus" status.

The operational leverage of airports is lower than airlines. Falling traffic does not tend to translate into as significant a decline in operating and pre–tax profitability. There are a number of reasons for this which are familiar to the capital markets. Airports' yield (as opposed to volume) risk is lower, since user charges (landing fees, passenger fees, etc.) are fixed or in some cases, through the regulatory formula, can be increased to offset a traffic decline. Airlines, on the other hand, have struggled to maintain load factors by aggressive price–cutting.

Large airports also benefit from the portfolio effect of exposure to a wide range of markets. At BAA’s airports, the decline in long–haul traffic (principally North Atlantic and Asia) has been offset by the continual increase in short–haul traffic generated by LCCs.

Also, BAA has benefited since these same short–haul passengers produce favourable commercial revenue for the airport operator, given the LCCs' approach to on–board service, length of check–in time and absence of free service to certain groups of passenger (i.e. no cosy lounges for business class passengers).

Finally, airlines have tended to have much more aggressive capital structures than their airport infrastructure suppliers. The consequent higher financial leverage of airlines further exacerbates the impact of traffic and revenue decline on bottom line profit performance and cashflow.

Secondary hub airports

Within Europe not all hub airports have fared well. Smaller secondary hubs with a larger exposure to one of the second–tier (in terms of size) carriers have seen a more fundamental shift in traffic patterns. Sabena’s failure, for example, resulted in a 27% decrease in traffic in 2002 and some longhaul routes may not be fully replaced.

At Unique Zurich Airport the failure of SAir Group coincided with a large expansion programme and also a substantial 15% decline in traffic in 2002 over 2001.

Unique’s management forecast that traffic for 2003 is likely to be between 16–17m passengers, however the airport will feel more confident now that Swissair’s replacement Swiss has found a home in the one world alliance.

These two examples demonstrate that the corollary of greater focus at the principal airport hubs as a result of airline network developments may well be a significant shift from secondary hubs. This does not mean that these airports cannot be successful, indeed both BIAC and Unique Zurich returned an operating profit in 2002.

It will, however, have a profound long–term impact on the planning of capacity expansion, financing and also developing appropriate marketing and service packages to a slightly different future airline customer. The two airlines, which have emerged in these instances — SN Brussels and Swiss, are more focused on point–to–point markets, reducing the need for an infrastructure which can provide capacity peaking around banks of inter–connecting flights.

Regional airports

The regional airport sector, defined by throughput of less than 5m passengers, has benefited the most through the recent cycle, as LCCs, in particular with the Ryanair business model, have rolled out across Europe.

These airports have achieved growth significantly above larger airports, though they have of course started from a much lower base.

The phenomenal growth of LCCs has opened up profoundly different opportunities for many regional airports. Ryanair has most clearly demonstrated this with its opening of four new bases in Europe since the first half of 2001. Despite the recent controversial ruling on Ryanair’s subsidies from the Chamber of Commerce of Strasbourg and Lower Rhine, there appears to be no reason why regional airports cannot benefit from a continued rapid expansion of point–to–point short–haul services.

Restructuring of the airline industry

The main impact of the airline crisis since on airports is that future decisions about the operating structure, capacity expansion and capital expenditure plans by airports will be even more closely aligned to the fortunes and evolution of the airline industry and specific airlines (or groupings) upon which airports are reliant for traffic. Taking the widely held view of commentators on the future structure of the industry (consolidation around smaller number of global network airlines and LCC providers in short haul markets) the consequences for airport operators are clear.

Emergence of Global Network Carriers

The consequence of an airline sector where three airlines in Europe are dominant in the medium and long markets (if the Air France/KLM merger goes ahead) is of course to further focus network activity at key hubs. Capacity constraints in this respect have not in the long term been diminished by the loss of two or three years of traffic growth.

Fraport’s growth potential is very much tied to the fourth runway, and as the Terminal 5 project at Heathrow starts, the critical issue of additional runway capacity for the southeast of England is BAA’s greatest long–term challenge. The side effect of the need to address capacity constraints of the major hub operators (i.e. BAA, Schiphol, Aerports de Paris, Fraport) has been to re–focus the mind of airport management and investors on issues at the core airports, rather than in the international privatisation market.

Low Cost Carriers

In the short–haul market, although overall the penetration of traffic volumes in Europe is relatively small at present (around 12%), the LCCs have extensive growth plans.

easyJet and Ryanair will add 120 and 82 aircraft respectively to their fleets in the next six years. The two dominant scheduled LCCs, Ryanair and easyJet, are likely to form the nucleus of this segment of the market.

Their behaviour and requirements of airport infrastructure providers is extremely different to that of the traditional full service carriers.

The LCC impact is to challenge the way many airports have been run including engineering and capex concepts, traditional airport charging mechanisms and arguing for a more contractual nature in the relationship with the airport operator. This breed of airline is also different from a commercial perspective, particularly for the smaller regional airports, as they have a stronger and more aggressive bargaining outlook. Again Ryanair is confident that setbacks such as over Strasbourg will be obviated by the significant number of alternative destinations to which it can fly.

Charter carriers and tour operators are also responding to the emergence of LCCs, by forming their own low cost subsidiaries (e.g. My Travel Lite by My Travel, Hapag Lloyd Express by TUI). These types of carrier reflect both the desire of Vertically Integrated Tour Operators to benefit from growth in low cost travel (which they can claim to have fostered for many years in traditional leisure markets) and concern that the LCCs are dis–intermediating the package holiday concept.

In any case the consequences for airport operators, in terms of pressure on pricing structures and infrastructure required by airlines, are likely to be the same as with the scheduled LCCs.

Under this broad vision for the industry it is medium sized airports (5–15m passengers) that perhaps face the most difficult positioning. Historically geared up to serve full service airlines, they are having to significantly adjust their thinking to both the LCCs and to another breed of carrier.

The LCCs require more simple terminal concepts and different pricing structures. Ryanair, for example, was ready to fund a new terminal of its own at Aer Rianta’s Dublin Airport.

At the same time regional and secondary hub services are being provided by a new breed of network carrier. The hybrid airline concept is evolving, and has usually involved the transformation of a former full service national flag carrier. Perhaps the most successful example in Europe is Aer Lingus, which still operates to major hub airports offering a mixed cabin service, cargo capacity and inter–line capability, but has also adopted as much as possible of the LCC concept. If this hybrid model is the future for Europe’s second tier national flag carriers, they also alter the demands that will be made at many medium sized airports.

Airport privatisation

Against this background, airport privatisation continues to be an important theme.This is the beginning of the third decade in which airports have been operated under private sector ownership. There is a very wide range of models for airport privatisation from stock market listing, to strategic ownership, to concession arrangements, to hybrid public listings with an anchor strategic investor.

Despite the relatively long history of airport privatisation, the steady pipeline of airport transactions, which has often been vaunted over the last ten years, has not materialised. And a very considerable proportion of the world’s airport capacity continues to be operated by federal or local government–owned entities. In the UK, the market has moved into secondary or tertiary market trading, for example the sale of East Midlands and Bournemouth by National Express in February 2001 and of Prestwick by Stagecoach in January 2001.

A parallel development to secondary trading has also been the emergence of a new breed of airport owners/operators. Macquarie Bank for example through various vehicles (MAG and Map) has been the most active with the acquisition of stakes in Sydney International Airport, Aeroporti di Roma, Birmingham International Airport and Bristol International Airport over the last few years.

Alongside such specialist funds, engineering/ concession companies have emerged as highly active players in today’s privatisation market. The acquisition strategy of Spanish construction company Ferrovial, who acquired 50% of Bristol Airport alongside Macquarie in 2001 and acquired Belfast City Airport for £35m this year, is a clear example.

• Privatised sector performance

Key observations on how privatised airports are performing are as follows. For institutional investors in listed airports the crisis has demonstrated once again that airports are quasi–utilities and have a lower operational risk profile than their airline customers. This makes airports attractive investments in uncertain times (defensive stocks), although equity research analysts tend to favour the airline sector over airports as recovery plays (cyclicality).

• Privatisation models vary

Recent history also shows that stock market performance of airport tends to be as much influenced by local circumstances as by geo–political events. BAA’s share price for example was influenced by the quinquennial review for 2003–2008 and Fraport’s shares are affected both by an overhang of the existing governmental shareholders (City of Frankfurt 20.46%, State of Hesse 32.04% and German Federal Government 18.32%) and the approval process for the fourth runway, expected to be commenced in 2006.v Privatisation has and will continue to take many different forms and therefore perhaps asking the question as to an optimal privatisation model is erroneous.

The fact remains that airports are not network businesses, but their performance is largely influenced by local circumstances (size of catchment area, economic activity and cultural mix in this relevant catchment area, regulation and environmental constraints).

The objectives of privatisation also vary significantly within each political framework. In areas such as Mexico and in the process which is just commencing in India (privatisation of Mumbai and Delhi International Airports), access to international expertise and training, has been influential in designing privatisation structures around attracting international airport operators.

An evaluation of the valuation multiples (EV/EBITDA, P/E or P/FCF) in a range of privatisation models (listing, strategic sales or concession transactions), highlights that for governments to maximise exchequer receipts would suggest that a competitive auction of control to strategic/financial buyers is the optimal process and structure.

For many airports operators' valuation issues have been superseded by public policy objectives.

• Access to capital is not a problem

Access to capital, which has been an important driver of privatisation, has not been seriously affected by the crisis itself.

This is reflected in recent capital raising by airports (e.g. BAA’s convertible bonds — £425m in 2003, £424m in 2002. Unique Zurich’s private placement of US$275m in 2003) and in relatively stable credit ratings, where airport operators have tended to have higher ratings than their home base carriers and most remain investment grade credits, see table below. Market sources of capital (either equity or debt) of course do wish to see use of funds tied to specific projects with identifiable returns. Acquisition financing has a different range of parameters that affect investor / lender appetite and therefore pricing for securities or for syndicated loans.

• Pipeline will be difficult to tie down

Activity in the airport market slowed down immediately following September 11, for example with the postponement of potential privatisations of Brussels (BIAC), SEA (Milan) and Schiphol. However, in Europe there is evidence that reform of ownership and operating structures are starting again.

In France, the Government has examined ways in which to reform the structure of regional airports, and mechanisms for opening up the capital of Aeroports de Paris may be on the agenda. At regional and global levels privatisations are on the agenda (e.g. Hong Kong, India and Italy).

It is difficult however to predict the actual flow of activity as the processes tend to be affected very much by local circumstances, in particular meeting political objectives. Schiphol Group’s privatisation, which almost coincided with the Initial Public Offering of Fraport has been long delayed. The most prominent new process underway is in Hong Kong, where the Hong Kong Airport Authority (HKAA) has appointed Goldman Sachs (Asia) and NM Rothschilds & Sons to advise on privatisation options, whilst the Government is being advised by UBS Warburg. These appointments of course do not confirm a definitive structure or timetable for HKAA.

Increasingly the publicly listed companies have found that their stock market investors have little time for foreign activities and are either not rewarded or indeed penalised for such investments. For example, Fraport’s investment in Manila (PIATCO) which has been written–off (€289.5m), had a significant impact on its share price. The market is therefore witnessing a more cautious approach from the European airport operators, focused on selling skills and/or involvement capital where it makes strategic sense or the potential financial rewards are clear. Other types of operator, concessionaires, service companies and engineering and construction companies will continue to be highly active in the privatisation market.

Their challenge will be to secure positions at attractive enough airports in a manner that will give clear returns and control.

Like their listed airport competitors they will need to demonstrate in a transparent manner to their shareholders that airport investments are worthwhile.

This has been more difficult since many airport investments are of a minority nature, where returns come as both dividends or are part of concession structures.

  2002 pax 2001/02 Proportion of
  (000's) change Group traffic
Domestic 24,096 9.1% 19%
Europe 63,270 4.1% 50%
N. Atlantic 17,833 -0.7% 14%
Other long haul 21,429 1.6% 17%
Total 126,629 3.9% 100%
  2000 2001 2002 2000/01 2001/02
BAA 25.1 27.7 30.4 -13.7% -5.8%
BA 4.1 (1.3) 3.8 -2.2% 4.7%
FRA 21.5 13.7 (0.3) -1.6% -0.2%
LH 10.2 (1.9) 9.4 -1.9% -2.0%
AMS 31.7 32.2 32.7 -0.2% 2.8%
KL 4 (1.4) (2.1) -2.9% 2.4%
CPH 37.2 32.2 34.4 -1.4% 0.9%
SK 6.4 -1.2 1.1 1.7% 1.4%
VIE 28.4 26.6 30.5 0.0% 0.8%
OS 3.2 (4.1) 1.7 -3.1% -2.1%
British Airways BB+/Stable
Deutsche Lufthansa BBB+/Negative/A-2
Aeroports de Paris AAA/Stable
Amsterdam Schiphol AA-/Stable
BAA plc AA-/NegativeA-1+
Aer Rianta A+/Negative/A-1
Birmingham Airport Holdings Ltd. A-/Stable/A-2
Aeroporti di Roma SpA BBB+/Stable/A-2
Newcastle Int'l Airport Ltd BBB+/Stable
Unique Flughafen Zurich AG BBB/Stable
City Aviation Finance Ltd Senior Secured Debt BBB/Negative
Source: S&P Global Transportation Report Card; Sept 26, 2003

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