Swissport Seeks More Deals After Buying SAS Ground-Handling Unit

Swissport International AG, the world’s largest aviation ground handling operator, plans more acquisitions after announcing its largest deal yet and may be ready to sell shares to the public in three to five years.

“It’s part of our strategy to expand into new countries,´´ Chief Executive Officer Per Utnegaard said in a telephone interview. ‘‘We’ll continue to grow and we are always aiming for bolt-on acquisitions.´´

Swissport yesterday said it plans to buy the majority of the ground-handling operations from SAS Group, the biggest Nordic airline. Utnegaard said today the company later aims for full ownership of the business, which will add 5,000 employees to the Zurich-based company’s 40,000. Future transactions will be smaller as the market is scattered, he said. Utnegaard declined to provide financial details on the transaction.

Ground handling operators are expanding as cash-strapped airlines focus on their cabin operations and airport operators seek higher margins in retail and real estate operations. The trend may lead to closely held Swissport eventually selling shares, the CEO said.

A listing ‘‘could make sense, but we’d need to be bigger than we are today,´´ Utnegaard said, adding that such a decision may be three to five years away. ‘‘In the meantime, we’ll continue to grow the company profitably.´´

Gate Services

Swissport operates ground-handling services for about 118 million passengers and 3.5 million metric tons of cargo each year, including ticketing sales desks, gate services, aircraft loading, cleaning and crew transport at more than 190 airports worldwide, including those in Geneva and Zurich and at Washington’s Dulles International.

The company, which competes with Derichebourg SA’s Servisair and the aviation unit of John Menzies Plc, is owned by private equity firm PAI Partners SAS, and generated sales of 1.9 billion Swiss francs ($2 billion) last year, 10 percent more than in 2011. Utnegaard said the company doesn’t provide earnings data, other than saying it was ‘‘profitable.´´

Swissport in September completed the acquisition of Flightcare Spain and Flightcare Belgium from Madrid-based FCC Versia SA, adding about 3,000 employees.