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BAA Chief Sees Competition Watchdog Urging Breakup

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The chairman of BAA expects Britain's Competition Commission to recommend the breakup of the airport operator, but added that would not be a financial disaster.

"All the things that I'm hearing are that they are going to make those kind of recommendations," Nigel Rudd said in an interview with the BBC.

Asked what the financial impact of a breakup would be on BAA, which is owned by Spain's Ferrovial, he said: "I don't think... it would be a disaster."

BAA operates seven airports, including Heathrow, Gatwick and Stansted near London.

The Financial Times reported on Saturday that BAA faced the threat of being forced to sell two of its three London airports under plans to be published by the Competition Commission next week.

Quoting people familiar with the matter, the report said the Commission would also suggest other options to break BAA's grip through less severe asset disposals and tighter regulation. Another proposal would to force BAA to sell either Glasgow or Edinburgh airport in Scotland, it said.

The BBC also reported that the competition watchdog's preliminary report would support breaking up BAA.

The Competition Commission is investigating whether problems faced by airline passengers throughout Britain, as highlighted by the recent botched opening of Heathrow's Terminal 5, are caused or exacerbated by BAA's monopoly.

In April, the Commission said the operator may not be serving the interests of airlines or passengers best.

Rudd insisted that Heathrow did not compete with other British airports such as Gatwick or Stansted, but with large international hub airports such as Paris's Charles de Gaulle, Dubai and Amsterdam's Schiphol.

"So the ownership of these airports actually has nothing to do with competition, but I think there is a mood in the country that just wants the business broken up," he said.

Rudd said BAA's airports were not for sale but "we have had huge expressions of interest" from people wanting to buy them.

If they were for sale, he said BAA would come out of it fine.

He said he did not see the problems affecting the airline industry -- which is struggling in the face of high fuel costs and weak economies in Europe and the United States -- reducing the value of airports.

"No, because I think people that buy airports take the long view," he said.

Other media reports have suggested that, in the event of a breakup, BAA would most likely sell Gatwick, which could fetch up to GBP2 billion pounds (USD$3.75 billion).

BAA's owner Ferrovial won bondholder support last week for a key step in a complex refinancing of over GBP10 billion of debt on Wednesday and said it hoped to sew the deal up this month, boosting shares and bonds.

The construction-to-services group has tried for over a year to renegotiate debt linked to BAA, which it bought in July 2006, but has been hampered by the global liquidity crisis.

(Reuters)

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