Airtours gets airborne again on hopes of US alliance

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Shares of Airtours, which suffered acute embarrassment from the slump in overseas holidays last year, have soared since it announced a dramatic profits fall four weeks ago.

They climbed a further 12p to 418p against a 309p low just ahead of the results.

The big cutback in the number of holidays Airtours and the rest of the industry will offer this year has helped steady the shares.

The reductions should improve margins and prevent the overheating that savaged industry profits last year.

But the surge in the group's shares is due more to takeover than trading prospects.

Airtours' highly successful move into sea cruising is thought to have alerted Carnival Corporation, the big US cruise group. And, if stock market and travel industry stories are to be believed, the Americans are desperately keen to absorb, or at least forge an alliance, with the UK group.

But Carnival is only one name in the frame. Richard Branson's Virgin is another. There is persistent talk of a Virgin/Airtours trading, deal although a bid from either party is regarded as highly unlikely.

The chances of a Carnival deal are more realistic. The group has the ammunition for a strike although it would need the support of David Crossland, Airtours' chairman, who accounts for nearly 27 per cent of the capital.

Michael Arison, Carnival's chief who has 10 per cent of the cruise group, and Mr Crossland are thought to be similar personalities who might be able to work together.

The market suffered its second consecutive reverse with the FT-SE 100 index off 28.8 points at 3,671.5. At one time it was off 38.8. Political uncertainty continued to ruffle sentiment but New York was the main influence. During London opening the Dow Jones Average was, for a time, off more than 50 points enough to rattle traders who were still absorbing the 66- point overnight fall.

The fierce Forte takeover struggle dominated proceedings with Forte attracting an astonishing 48.3 million turnover. Even allowing for double-counting and various other factors it was a remarkably busy session for the beleaguered catering and hotel group.

Bidder Granada was not, it seemed, in the market so the brisk trading was apparently due to arbitraging and institutional juggling. Forte rose 9p to 360p and Granada, with turnover put at 7.3 million, 16p to 653p.

Savoy 'A' put on 17p to 970p on the profit forecast and Whitbread, another on the fringe of the bid action, fell 6p to 675p.

Morland, the Thames Valley brewery that fought off the advances of neighbours Greene King nearly four years ago, frothed up 20p to a 573p peak.

The group is known to be seeking pub acquisitions and there are suggestions it is near to completing a deal. But there is also talk it could again attract takeover attention.

House of Fraser, the department stores chain, gained 5p to 168p despite it latest profit warning. Buyers took the view the current management could come under institutional pressure and the company was looking increasingly vulnerable to a takeover strike.

Allders, where the French luxury goods group LVMH has 2 per cent, fell 7p to 175p. Vodafone gave up 5p to 212p with a rumoured Cazenove downgrading and New York influences doing the damage.

British Aerospace made further headway,up 9p to 833p, but British Petroleum and most of the oils gave ground.

Lonrho was actively traded ahead of today's results, expected to include demerger details; the shares fell 3p to 187p. Charter retreated 12p to 852p on negative comments from NatWest Securities.

Cable companies remained weak with General Cable off 6p at 180p and Telewest, paying pounds 9.8m for the Worcester cable franchise, 8.5p to 140.5p.

Eurotunnel recovered 7p to 84p but NFC fell 2p to 143p as Mees Pierson said sell. Eurodollar, the car hire group, motored 15p ahead to 86p following an investment meeting.

Gold shares responded to the firm bullion price, over $400 an ounce for the first time for nearly 30 months.

Supermarkets were cut as James Capel downgraded the sector. The management changes at J Sainsbury were greeted with a 1p fall to 388p.

High-tech shares were again ruffled by the weakness of their US counterparts although Acorn Computer pulled out of its tailspin thanks to a link with Oracle. The shares rose 25p to 238p.

Cranswick, the food group expected to add to its pet food interests, shaded 6p to 176p.


r Shop fitter Campbell & Armstrong jumped 4p to 20p as Highland Electronics, an unquoted group with a habit of investing in quoted groups, picked up 336,000 shares, lifting its stake to 17.3p per cent.

Campbell has had a difficult time since it arrived on the market in 1990, when its shares hit 138p. It lost pounds 890,000 in its last half-year.

r Southend Property gained 4p to 46p in busy trading with some shares going through at 47.5p.

Since making an unsuccessful pounds 140m takeover bid for Frogmore five years ago, Southend, run by near-20 per cent shareholder Malcolm Dagul, has failed to make much impression. Still, it is one property company which has attracted the reclusive Barclay brothers who have 12.4 per cent.