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Room for Prestwick as well as Glasgow as airport competition intensifies

WITH Glasgow Airport's ownership appearing ever more likely to change in the near future, an intensification of its battle with rivals for airlines and routes looks inevitable.

Things are likely to heat up further in the airport sector north of the Border when the Scottish Government's strategy for Prestwick, taken into state ownership for £1 last year when New Zealand company Infratil exited, becomes clearer.

Glasgow Airport, which already faces fierce competition from Edinburgh, will be keeping a very close eye on what the Scottish Government is planning at Prestwick.

And there are likely to be big changes afoot at Glasgow, one way or another, in terms of its ownership.

Air wars: Glasgow set to back bid for city airport

It was reported earlier that Spanish infrastructure group Ferrovial was, with backers, proposing a bid of about £800 million to Heathrow Airport Holdings (HAH) for Glasgow, Aberdeen, and Southampton airports.

Ferrovial has a 25% holding in HAH. The Spanish group acquired control of the main UK airports operator, BAA, in 2006 but sold off stakes to partners that are now said to be more interested in Heathrow, than the likes of Glasgow and Aberdeen airports.

It has now emerged that Strathclyde Pension Fund, which runs the retirement savings of public sector workers, is planning a bid for Glasgow Airport along with investment company Partners Group and Zurich Airport.

So the coming months will certainly be exciting for Glasgow Airport, which in 2013 enjoyed its busiest year since 2008 in terms of passenger numbers.

Edinburgh, having overtaken Glasgow as Scotland's busiest airport in 2007, continues to enjoy rapid growth.

Last summer, it attracted more than one million passengers in one month.

Glasgow was the first airport in Scotland to do this, back in 2004.

Edinburgh Airport appears to be enjoying a strong tailwind, following its acquisition by Global Infrastructure Partners in 2012.

As the airports that formed BAA move into increasingly diverse ownership, competition will increase and that is good for passengers.

The intensity of the competition is evident in Gatwick's campaign aimed at showing why it, rather than Heathrow, should get another runway.

Given Edinburgh's rise in recent years, it is easy to understand why Glasgow might be worried about what Scottish Government ownership of Prestwick could mean.

Glasgow Chamber of Commerce chief executive Stuart Patrick was quick, in the wake of the Scottish Government taking over Prestwick, to appeal for equality, to ensure his city's airport was not damaged.

However, while it might have been overtaken by Edinburgh, Glasgow Airport looks more than capable of looking after itself.

Glasgow has enjoyed great success with long-haul traffic over the years and decades.

Emirates will, in April, celebrate a decade of carrying passengers from Glasgow to Dubai and beyond with a one-off Airbus A380 service.

And Glasgow maintains key transatlantic connections, as well as a raft of domestic and European connections.

About 7.4m passengers used Glasgow Airport in 2013, up 2.9% on 2012.

The airport served a record 8.8m passengers in 2006. Passenger numbers dipped to 8.7m in 2007.

In 2008, as recession took hold, passenger numbers dropped to 8.1m.

They then tumbled to 7.2m in 2009 and to 6.5m in 2010, before rising to 6.9m in 2011 and then climbing to 7.2m in 2012.

The collapse of Zoom in 2008, and Flyglobespan in December 2009, played a big part in the decline in passengers at Glasgow from their record level, before the current period of recovery.

Glasgow Airport now looks in good shape, having enjoyed a third straight year of growth in passenger numbers.

Prestwick too suffered during the global financial crisis. As charter flight operators went bust, its

over-reliance on budget airline Ryanair became ever-more apparent.

In spite of its troubles, we should not under-estimate the importance of Prestwick Airport to the Ayrshire economy, in terms of its aerospace industry cluster and the benefits of travellers spending time and money there.

Prestwick is also important to the wider Scottish economy, and we would do well not to overlook its potential.

It has been suggested again recently that Prestwick should be renamed Robert Burns International Airport.

For years, there has been some

irritation in Ayrshire about the now-dismantled "Pure dead Brilliant" branding on Prestwick Airport.

This irritation was mostly to do with a Glaswegian phrase being applied to an airport in Ayrshire, but the word "dead" for an airport is never wise.

Capitalising on the airport's location in Burns' country is a good idea in terms of attracting overseas visitors.

But the case for Prestwick is not based on a new name, nostalgia, nor the fact Elvis stopped off there.

Prestwick is a perfect location for holiday flight operators, particularly those at the budget end of the market.

If anyone doubts there is enough room for Prestwick and Glasgow, they should observe the continuing procession of Scottish residents travelling to Manchester for affordable holidays in these austere times.

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