Virgin confirm interest in buying Gatwick

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The Independent Online

Sir Richard Branson's airline Virgin Atlantic today confirmed its interest in bidding for Gatwick Airport as part of a consortium.

The group has reportedly held talks with several possible partners in relation to Gatwick, which could be sold after the Competition Commission told owner BAA it may have to offload three of its UK airports.

Gatwick - Britain's second biggest airport - could fetch more than £2 billion if an auction goes ahead, according to the Daily Telegraph.

The Competition Commission proposed in a preliminary report that BAA divest itself of two of its three London airports.

The competition watchdog made it clear that it was unlikely to require Heathrow to be sold, which could leave Gatwick and Stansted on the sale block.

It also recommended that Spanish-owned BAA lose control of either Edinburgh or Glasgow airport, but a final report is not due until the end of the year.

A Virgin Atlantic spokesman said: "Virgin Atlantic would be interested in possibly bidding to run it, as part of a consortium. We would be able to bring our expertise in customer service into any ownership group."

The carrier, which has long called for an airport shake-up in the UK, said its experience with the National Air Traffic Services (NATS) public-private partnership suggested a consortium ownership of Gatwick could succeed.

"We are a shareholder in the air traffic control company NATS, which we part own with other airlines, and could imagine a similar scenario in terms of Gatwick's ownership," said the spokesman.

Virgin Atlantic has reportedly already been in contact with funds backed by the Dubai royal family for a joint bid.

But the group said it was "very early days" and added: "We cannot comment on parties we may have held talks with but we are watching developments closely."

Virgin is thought to be one of a number of potential bidders lining up to secure the airport should a sale be forced.

More than 34 million passengers use Gatwick airport each year. It is the sixth busiest international airport in the world, offering flights to more than 200 destinations by around 80 carriers. Airlines have been highly critical of the airport ownership structure in the UK in recent years.

The Competition Commission said in its report last month that there were competition problems at each of BAA's seven UK airports "with adverse consequences for passengers and airlines".