Canadian pension funds beat Chinese firms to buy London City airport

Plane on a runway at London City Airport.
Tanya Powley, Arash Massoudi and Joseph Cotterill
Plane on a runway at London City Airport.

The £2bn race to own London City, an airport favoured by corporate executives, has been won by a Canadian-led consortium of pension funds, narrowly beating rival bids from two Chinese groups.

The sale of the airport, close to the Canary Wharf financial district, ends a process started last August by its US private equity owners, Global Infrastructure Partners, people close to the matter said.

The valuation has proved controversial, with British Airways, the largest airline at London City, threatening to pull most of its aircraft out of the airport if the hub's new owner raised airline charges to cover the high sale price.

Willie Walsh, chief executive of International Airlines Group, BA's parent, told the Financial Times this month he had serious concerns about the £2bn valuation, which he called a "foolish price".

GIP bought the airport for an estimated £750m in 2006 from Dermot Desmond, the Irish financier, who paid just £23.5m for it in 1995 from Mowlem, the UK construction group. GIP owns 75 per cent of London City, with Oaktree Capital having the remainder.

The deal adds to the growing portfolio of Ontario Teachers' Pension Plan, which now owns five European airports including Bristol and Birmingham.

"We own four airports, so why wouldn't we look at London City Airport?," Jo Taylor, Teachers' European head, told the Financial Times last year.

The consortium, which includes Borealis Infrastructure, AimCo and Kuwait's Wren House Infrastructure Management, trumped bids from HNA, China's aviation and shipping conglomerate, and a rival Canadian group led by pension fund PSP Investments, according to people familiar with the matter.

Cheung Kong Infrastructure Holdings, controlled by Hong Kong tycoon Li Ka-shing, was also among the four groups that submitted an offer late last week.

Seven miles from London's traditional business district and even closer to the financial centre at Canary Wharf, London City has become one of the favoured ways to travel by business travellers, who account for two thirds of its traffic.

Passenger numbers have doubled over the past decade from 2m in 2005 to an estimated 4.2m in 2015, despite the financial crisis.

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London City is in the middle of a planning battle over a £200m development that would increase the number of passengers it handles to 6m by 2023. The plans were blocked last year by Boris Johnson, mayor of London, over concerns of sound pollution. London City is appealing against the mayor's decision.

The Canadian Teachers' fund, which has $160bn in assets, also owns the high-speed rail link between London and the Channel tunnel and the National Lottery's operator.

GIP and Ontario Teachers' declined to comment.