The sale of George Best Belfast City Airport for nearly four times what its owners paid just five years ago was last night hailed as a “vote of confidence” for Belfast.
The Spanish Ferrovial Group — owners of Heathrow, Gatwick, Stansted and other key British airports in the BAA group — has sold the regional airport to the ABN AMRO Global Infrastructure Fund for £132.5m.
Brian Ambrose, chief executive of the Belfast airport, said: “The sale is the result of Ferrovial’s strategy to focus its UK airport business within the BAA group, manager of various UK airports.
“The capital gain on sale, in accordance with preliminary calculations is £85m.”
Completion of the sale is expected before the end of the month, he said. Ferrovial paid £35 million for the airport when they bought in 2003.
Mr Ambrose added: “The sale does not affect the day-to-day business of the airport and we look forward to continuing to serve both our business partners and our customers.
“We also look forward to continued investment in the airport facilities.”
The Competition Commission last month said BAA should sell two of its airports in the South East of England and either Glasgow or Edinburgh.
Belfast City was not mentioned in the report because it has been owned by Ferrovial directly rather than through the BAA.
The airport in the east of the city on the shore of Belfast Lough started commercial operations as an airport in 1983 when owned by Belfast aerospace company Shorts.
A new multi-million pound expansion of facilities and a new terminal arrived in 2001 and by last year it catered for 2.2 million passengers.
It is projected to be used by 2.7 million passengers this year.
It was renamed in honour of the soccer legend George Best in 2006 and employs 100 people directly and 1,500 indirectly.
The new owners will have to decide whether to press ahead and seek to extend the runway — as wanted by operators such as Ryanair — and to expand the number of flights.
People living close to the airport have long campaigned for a cap on operations claiming bigger aircraft or later flights would make their lives more uncomfortable.
ABN AMRO was bought last October by a consortium of three major banks — RBS, Spain’s Santander, and Brussels-based Fortis.
Robin Newton, East Belfast DUP MLA and a member of the Assembly’s Enterprise Trade and Investment Committee, said the sale is a “vote of confidence in difficult times”.
“It is gratifying that a number of bidders were willing to consider the purchase of the business. This is a valuable business asset not only for the east of the city but is now a major factor in the economic well-being of Northern Ireland’s economy.
“The airport’s business prospects look good for the future,” he said.