The Welsh government has agreed to buy Cardiff Airport from Abertis, the Spanish infrastructure group, for £52m in an effort to bring passenger numbers back to pre-recession highs.

Abertis, which bought Cardiff from local councils in 2005, has been looking to hive off its airport holdings as it focuses on core operations. The world’s biggest toll road operator by revenues owns three airports in Europe, including Cardiff, and manages 27 others around the world.

Carwyn Jones, Welsh first minister, is eager to ensure Cardiff Airport acts as a “gateway” to Wales, and wants to see passenger numbers recover after falling by nearly half since 2007. Last year 1.2m travellers used the airport.

But he added: “The airport will not be operated by the Welsh government. It will be managed at arm’s length from government on a commercial basis and, over time, I expect to see a return to the public purse on the investment.”

The airport brought in £2m in earnings before interest, tax, depreciation and amortisation last year, compared with £9m in 2007. That suggests the government paid a higher multiple for Cardiff than Manchester Airports Group did for Stansted airport, which it bought for 15.6 times 2012 earnings.

Robert Sinclair, chief executive of Bristol Airport, which competes with Cardiff for passengers and airline customers, said on Tuesday that this figure raised concerns that “government involvement and support is highly likely”.

Abertis said on Tuesday that the deal would have no impact on its income statement. “The asset sale price equals the value booked in the company’s consolidated balance sheet, thus generating no book gains.”

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