Treasury backs off from selling stake in National Air Traffic Services
21:04 GMT, 25 May 2012
A proposed 1bn sale by the Government of its 49 per cent stake in the National Air Traffic Services is understood to have stalled.
The Treasury is believed to be backing off the idea of selling the air traffic control provider amid fears that German air bosses would move in to take over UK airspace.
But insiders add that a second threat comes from the seven predominantly UK airlines selling their jointly held 42 per cent share to the Germans.
Off radar: The sale stalled amid fears that it would have handed control of Britain's skies to Berlin
At the centre of the battle for British airspace is the part-privatised NATS, in which the Government retains a 49 per cent stake.
Ministers announced two years ago they were minded to sell off all or part of this golden share, retained when the last Labour government sold off 51 per cent a decade ago to the airlines, staff, and airport operator BAA.
Germany’s state-controlled air traffic control body Deutsche Flugsicherung (DFS) has expressed keen interest in a stake in NATS.
A source close to the talks said: ‘It would not be a good idea to hand control of Britain’s skies to Berlin. This is what is making the Treasury nervous.
All the signs are that the Government is not now going to go ahead with the sell off of its share. Air traffic control is a strategic resource.
To put it in the hands of a foreign government – whether Germany or anyone else – would be a courageous decision.’
However, because of the way NATS is structured, it is the seven airlines who together form the Airline Group and together hold 42 per cent of the shares, which will determine its future.
They comprise British Airways, Virgin Atlantic, easyJet, Monarch, TUI, Thomas Cook and Lufthansa.
This group recently appointed investment bank Rothschild to advise them on a sale of their stake. Experts point out that in reality, anyone who wanted to take control of NATS would need only to secure a majority of the Airline Group’s stake, or around 22 per cent of the total.
The airlines are said to be keen to sell most or all of their holdings. Airport operator BAA owns 4 per cent and the employees 5 per cent, a proportion which the firm would like to see double. Another fear is that a venture capital company may step in for three or four years and ‘asset strip’ the company.
The preferred option for those close to NATS is for a major aviation player such as Boeing or Airbus to take the major stakes.
Last year NATS produced pre-tax profits of 106m based on a turnover of 777m.
Its year end figures on June 29 are expected to be ‘upbeat’ despite the recession.
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