Airtours back on the takeover trail

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AIRTOURS, which failed in its pounds 294m bid for Owners Abroad this year, is expected to make a pounds 25m swoop for Aspro, the Cardiff package holidays group, this week, writes Jason Nisse.

The purchase will hardly make up for the loss of Owners Abroad, which was saved by its link-up with Thomas Cook, but Aspro is a neat fit as Airtours builds on its position as a low-cost supplier of exotic holidays, often from regional airports.

Airtours is also expected to reveal tomorrow that the failure to win Owners Abroad cost it the best part of pounds 10m in fees to financial advisers and lawyers. It will report a first-half pre-tax loss of pounds 17m after the bid costs.

However, the market is less interested in the figures than on how the large travel companies bear up to the Competition Act investigation foisted on them by Sir Bryan Carsberg, Director-General of Fair Trading.

Sir Bryan failed to persuade Michael Heseltine, the President of the Board of Trade, to refer the Owners Abroad bid to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission, but is now having a second bite at the cherry.

The three big travel companies - Thomson, Airtours and Owners Abroad - are incensed by the investigation. The feeling is that the Office of Fair Trading may force them to sell some of their travel agency outlets, breaking up the business in the way the beer trade is being split.