MADRID (Reuters) - Spain's AENA airports authority, the world's largest, aims to raise around 6 billion euros (5 billion pounds) in a partial privatisation before the end of the year, sources familiar with the situation said on Thursday.
AENA is entirely owned by the Spanish state and runs 46 airports in Spain alone, including Madrid, a European hub for flights from Latin America. Spain, whose sun soaked beaches are among Europe's most popular, welcomed nearly 58 million visitors in 2012.
The sale would raise much-needed revenue that could either help ease the government's own financing problems or be used to pay off some of the company's own debt pile of 12 billion euros, most of which was taken on for badly-needed extensions of Madrid's Barajas and Barcelona's El Prat airport.
The operator handles 200 million passengers a year, most of those in Spain, and the sources said advisers have estimated its worth at between 12 billion and 15 billion euros or 8 to 10 times this year's core earnings (EBITDA).
That compares with an enterprise value of 9 times EBITDA for Fraport, Frankfurt's airports operator, which also runs airports in Peru and Turkey.
It is not yet clear whether the sale will be an initial public offering or another format, and the exact date is still unknown as well.
But the sources, speaking on condition of anonymity, told Reuters that firm plans were now in place for a sale that would take place at latest early next year.
The privatisation process should not be difficult despite the economic climate in Spain, according to one Spanish investment banker not involved in the sale, but also declining to be named.
"This is a very attractive asset and I don't think there will be any problem selling it, it's world class in terms of both Spain's position as a tourist destination as well as its links to Latin America," the banker said.
"The only thing they have to be careful about is not to break it up into too many pieces, or there will be a loss of interest," he added.
Public Works Ministry officials have said publicly that the privatisation should take place before the end of the year. Selling off AENA has been an on-off project for years, last shelved in 2011 because of poor market conditions.
"We have not yet finalised the project ... but the objective is to do it this year," Infrastructure Secretary Rafael Catala said earlier this week.
The sources said one of the formats would be a privatisation via a sale of stakes to core shareholders, viewed as long term partners, and institutional investors, which could eventually place up to 60 percent of the company in private hands.
That could take place by the end of the year or the spring of 2014, depending on the market. The government has named Lazard and N+1 as advisers in the process.
"There is an appetite for these kind of assets, which have some resilience to the economic climate. But it's very difficult to make an argument for a premium valuation," said a London-based investment banker not involved in the sale.
Government officials however for the moment have only talked of the sale of a minority stake, although a decision to sell more would boost the value of the offering by giving a greater say in how the operator is run.
AENA, which also has stakes in 23 airports beyond Spain, is also negotiating the purchase of London's Luton airport from fellow Spanish firm Abertis.
The airports operator has its eye on expansion to offset Spain's current economic doldrums, and wants to capitalise on its cultural links with Latin America. Spain was the world's fourth most-visited country in 2011 according to the United Nations Tourism Organization.
The operator recently raised airport tariffs, which it argues brought rates into line with European peers. It is also selling new concessions and licences to run services including baggage handling, parking and private aviation.
(Editing by Fiona Ortiz and Patrick Graham)