Airports operator sells duty free shops

Airports operator BAA today announced the sale of its World Duty Free business in a deal worth £546.6m.

The chain of 58 shops, based at airports including Heathrow and Gatwick, has been bought by Italy's Autogrill, the operator of 5,200 outlets in more than 1,100 locations.

The disposal will help reduce the £9bn of debt taken on by Spain's Ferrovial to fund its £10bn purchase of BAA 18 months ago.

Ferrovial's hopes of quickly refinancing the debt have been dashed by the credit crunch, while it has also been hit by increased security costs.

BAA will learn tomorrow what return on investment the regulator will allow it to make at Heathrow and Gatwick. The Civil Aviation Authority is expected to limit BAA's rate of return to 6.2 per cent and 6.5 per cent respectively, compared with the firm's submission proposing a rate of 7.75 per cent.

There has also been speculation that the Competition Commission's imminent "emerging thinking" document will recommend a partial break-up of the group.

Today's deal will see World Duty Free take on a 12-year agreement for the operation of duty-free operations at BAA's seven UK sites, which also include Southampton, Stansted, Gatwick, Edinburgh and Glasgow Airports.

Autogrill - majority owned by the Benetton family - has recently bolstered its position as the world's biggest provider of retail services for travellers.

Last year, it acquired Alpha Airports, a UK-based firm with operations at Manchester Airport and contracts to provide 100 airlines with in-flight food and retail services.

The company also said today that it had bought the remaining 49.9 per cent stake of Aldessa, a Spanish firm with 273 shops in 44 airports and 50 museums worldwide.

Gilberto Benetton, chairman of Autogrill, described the transactions as "a further milestone" in the growth of the group.

He added: "In 1995 Autogrill was an Italian food and beverage motorway company with sales of approximately €800m (£610m). Today our group is the global service provider for travellers with a presence in 42 countries and sales of approximately €6bn (£4.58bn)."

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