Two of Britain’s biggest manufacturers are hoisting a ‘for sale’ sign over their stakes in AirTanker, the company behind the RAF’s Voyager refuelling fleet.
Sky News has learnt that Babcock International Group and Rolls-Royce Holdings have appointed investment bankers to market their combined shareholding in AirTanker.
City sources said that Babcock and Rolls-Royce had asked Jefferies to kick off a sale process.
Rolls-Royce has been grappling with the impact of the pandemic
The two companies own roughly 50% of AirTanker, although the value of their interest was unclear on Tuesday.
AirTanker delivers the Future Strategic Tanker Aircraft contract for the Ministry of Defence (MoD), and is based at RAF Brize Norton.
It is responsible for the British military’s air-to-air refuelling capability as well as serving international allies of the UK’s armed forces.
The remaining shares in AirTanker are owned by Airbus Group and Thales, the French engineering group.
More on Ministry Of Defence
Their stakes are not thought to have been put up for sale.
Cobham, the British defence and engineering group which was controversially bought by Advent International, the buyout firm, was a shareholder in AirTanker but sold its stake last year to the company’s other shareholders.
Airbus also owns a stake in AirTanker
Specialist infrastructure funds are expected to be interested in acquiring the interests of Babcock and Rolls-Royce, although it is unclear whether the UK government will have an influence over the identity of the buyers given AirTanker’s strategic importance.
In 2008, AirTanker was awarded a 27-year contract to service the adapted fleet of Airbus A330 aircraft known as Voyagers.
The fleet comprises more than a dozen planes, with a standby ‘surge fleet’ which can be leased to civilian airlines but recalled for military use when required.
The original deal was criticised in 2010 by MPs who argued that the MoD had no idea whether the contract represented value for money.
Margaret Hodge, the then chair of the public accounts committee, said the use of the Private Finance Initiative to award the £10.5bn contract had been a mistake.
The decision of Babcock and Rolls-Royce to sell their AirTanker stakes is unsurprising in the context of those companies’ wider financial challenges.
Both have launched disposal programmes to generate billions of pounds of proceeds as they have grappled with the impact of the pandemic.
Rolls-Royce in particular has been forced into a radical restructuring of its balance sheet as international air travel became decimated by the COVID-19 crisis.
It is engaged in a process to sell ITP Aero, a Spanish-based business, and had to restart an auction of Bergen, a marine engineering division, following objections from the Norwegian government to a sale to a Russian buyer.
Babcock also plans to sell a portfolio of smaller non-core operations.
Babcock, Rolls-Royce and AirTanker all declined to comment.