ROLLING THE DICE TO MEET AIR INDUSTRY COMPETITION

ROLLING THE DICE TO MEET AIR INDUSTRY COMPETITION

Airbus Industrie's decision to take a $12 billion gamble on the A3XX superjumbo underscores Europe's determination to achieve parity with the United States in the civil aerospace industry.

European airlines are equally determined to keep pace with their giant U.S. rivals. Evidence of that can be seen in the ongoing attempt by British Airways and KLM Royal Dutch Airlines to cement a merger that would create the world's third-largest airline.But, while Europe's aerospace companies and airlines are struggling to catch up with their U.S. competitors, its airports are leading the way in the race to globalize.

Indeed, airports are one of the few industries in which the Europeans behave more like Americans and vice-versa. While U.S. airports are publicly owned, an increasing number of Europe's airports are private companies with stock market listings, have global interests and are running airports overseas, including the United States. Amsterdam Schiphol, for example, has the contract to renovate and operate Terminal Four at New York's John F. Kennedy International.

While most European airports are still in public ownership, the high fliers are private - like Britain's BAA PLC, which runs London's Heathrow and Gatwick and five other British airports - or are being primed for privatization - like Frankfurt, Europe's second-largest airport, and Schiphol, the fourth-largest.

When airports are offered for privatization, they attract the kind of investor attention usually associated with new-economy IPOs. That's why Benetton, Italy's giant family owned clothing company, was competing against a consortium that included Frankfurt and Schiphol airports and another that included BAA in the recent bidding for a 51 percent stake in Aeroporti di Roma (ADR), the company that runs Rome Fiumicino, Europe's fifth-largest airport.

They all were outbid by Gemina, a financial holding company that paid $1.25 billion for the stake in ADR.

European airports have been at the forefront of airport privatization programs. In their bid to build a global business, they have bought sizeable stakes in airports from Australia to South Africa. And, Europe's global grip will tighten as more of its airports are privatized and they gain the freedom to raise capital and forge cross-border alliances. Schiphol, which has a strategic stake in Vienna, is considering a stock swap with Frankfurt to promote their commercial activities.

European airports also are ahead of their U.S. and Asian rivals in managing other airports' operations, especially in the United States. BAA, for example, runs the catering facilities at Newark International and Pittsburgh and last week clinched a 10-year contract from the Massachusetts Port Authority to operate retail and catering operations at Boston's Logan Airport. Frankfurt airport runs Indianapolis and Harrisburg airports and the baggage services at Newark.

Meanwhile, private companies are taking over small regional airports, often to serve passenger charters and all-cargo services that find major hubs too expensive and overcrowded. But it's a risky business: Stagecoach, a British-based global bus company, wrote down the book value of Prestwick Airport, near Glasgow, by $45 million a couple of months ago after Federal Express halted its daily trans-Atlantic flight.

European airports' biggest achievement has been to add value to their core business of managing runways and terminals, mainly by introducing logistics and manufacturing activities. Schiphol, for one, has surrounded its runways with high-tech factories, warehouses, distribution facilities and corporate headquarters of top U.S. and Japanese companies.

As a result, Europe's airports are becoming less dependent on revenue from airlines. Non-aviation activities account for 50 percent of revenue at Schiphol and 40 percent at BAA.

But even as they conquer markets abroad, Europe's leading airports face threats at home amid mounting public opposition to their expansion plans. Schiphol's traffic was stagnant until the government eased noise restrictions and approved the construction of a fifth runway. But congestion remains a worry, and the airport is under pressure to build a new airport on an artificial island in the North Sea.

Schiphol's not alone in feeling the heat. Belgium was forced to abandon plans to ban night flights at Brussels Zaventem Airport after DHL Worldwide Express warned that it would move its hub to a rival airport. And, Lufthansa Cargo is threatening to do the same if the local state of Hesse blocks plans for a fourth runway at Frankfurt.

Despite the threats, Europe is in position to dominate the emerging global airport industry. And, investors can get in on the action when Schiphol is floated on the Amsterdam Stock Exchange later this year.