Cardiff Airport: First minister urges owners to invest or sell

The first minister has called on the owners of Cardiff Airport to invest in its future or put it up for sale.

Carwyn Jones said he had been in talks with potential buyers interested in a public-private partnership with the Welsh government taking a stake.

He has criticised Abertis for delays in a £26m investment plan and has said the airport gives a bad impression of Wales and is falling behind its rivals.

The Spanish firm says it has no plans to sell but would be open to offers.

Mr Jones has criticised the airport in recent months, saying he would not want to welcome visitors to Wales through it because of the bad impression it gives of the country.

He told BBC Wales taking a stake would allow the Welsh government to invest.

The Welsh government has offered to fund £5m towards a £26m investment programme at the airport, which has lost nearly one million passengers in the past five years.

In an interview with BBC Wales' Week In Week Out programme, Mr Jones said Abertis must go ahead with the postponed investment or sell at a reasonable price.

He also threatened to bring pressure on the company through the Catalan regional government in Spain if nothing changed, but added he would work with Abertis if it showed "ambition" for Wales.

"We need commitment from the owners of the airport, we've made our commitment, we've put money on the table - otherwise, the long-term future for Cardiff is not good," said Mr Jones.

Although Cardiff Airport is profitable, he said Abertis should sell it to maintain the company's reputation.

"They're looking at taking airports over in other parts of the world - do they really want that publicity surrounding Cardiff Airport?" he said.

"From our point of view, either they improve it or we continue to say that things are not right with Cardiff Airport."

The airport said it had an ongoing investment programme and was proud to have attracted new airlines - including the Spanish budget airline, Vueling.

'Controversial issue'

"The terminal has the capacity to support up to three million passengers per year and, at present, our priority is to grow traffic and operations in order to better utilise the capacity we already have in place," said an airport spokesperson.

Plaid Cymru's Alun Ffred Jones said the airport needed "serious investment" and his party would support it from both the Welsh government and private sources.

But he said the devolution of control of air passenger duty was also crucial to give the Welsh government "an economic lever that could be used to entice more carriers to the airport".

Carlos del Rio, managing director of Abertis Airports, rejected the first minister's criticism.

"Airports are always a very controversial issue. It's impossible to please everybody," he said.

"We are ready to receive this type of criticism - it doesn't matter."

He said the company's intention was not to sell at the moment but, in a global market, "everything depends on price".

BBC Wales has been told that Abertis valued the airport at about £150m when they bought it in 2005 but the asking price had increased to £200m, despite falling passenger numbers and profits.

Abertis would not confirm the figure, although one industry expert has valued the airport at just £30m.

Mike Snelgrove, business strategist from Cardiff Metropolitan University, said the airport needed help if it was going to survive.

"It's going to be a political decision as to whether we, as a nation of Wales, want an airport here and whether really, we are willing to provide the assistance that Cardiff needs," he said.

Travel writer Simon Calder said: "If things carry on the way they are it will continue to be something of a national embarrassment".

Cardiff Airport issued a statement saying it was continuing its work to build upon the success of attracting three new carriers to Wales over the past year.

These are: Helvetic, operating flights to Zurich, Vueling, operating flights to Barcelona, Palma and Alicante, and Cosmos operating flights to Orlando.

"The airport will also continue to work with airlines, the Welsh government and other key stakeholders to deliver additional services for the south Wales market," said a spokesperson.

Week In Week Out is on BBC One Wales at 22:35 BST on Tuesday.

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