Virgin Australia, partly owned by SIA, collapses as coronavirus wipes out global air travel

Virgin Australia had already furloughed 80 per cent of its 10,000-strong workforce. PHOTO: AFP

SYDNEY (BLOOMBERG) - Virgin Australia Holdings, 20 per cent-owned by Singapore Airlines (SIA), became Asia's first airline and the first long-haul carrier to fall to the coronavirus after the outbreak deprived the debt-burdened company of almost all income.

Administrators at Deloitte will take control of the Brisbane-based carrier, it said in a statement on Tuesday (April 21). They'll seek to bring in new investors, reorganise borrowings or find a buyer to save the business.

Virgin Australia joins FlyBe - the UK's biggest domestic airline before it collapsed last month - as one of the industry's corporate casualties of the virus. Airlines have been pummelled by domestic and international travel bans that forced them to seek government aid.

Virgin Australia, which had already furloughed 80 per cent of its 10,000-strong workforce, will continue to operate some flights for essential workers, freight and the repatriation of Australians. The airline's Velocity Frequent Flyer programme is a separate company and is not in administration.

"We have commenced a process of seeking interest from parties for participation in the recapitalisation of the business and its future, and there have been several expressions of interest so far," said Mr Vaughan Strawbridge, who is one of the four administrators at Deloitte.

The fate of Virgin Australia, which had more than A$5 billion (S$4.5 billion) in debt as of the end of 2019, hung in the balance after it stopped virtually all services because of the virus and its request for state help failed. The company had asked the government for a A$1.4 billion loan, convertible into equity, to see it through the crisis.

Instead, the Australian government called on the airline's shareholders to step in and rescue the company.

Almost entirely owned by foreign airlines, Virgin Australia is a unique experiment in aviation. SIA, Etihad Airways, China's HNA Group and Nanshan Group each own about 20 per cent of the company. Mr Richard Branson's Virgin Group owns about 10 per cent.

In a letter to Virgin staff on Monday, the British billionaire said his airlines in the UK and Australia wouldn't survive the crisis without state support. Mr Branson said he's doing everything possible to keep UK-based Virgin Atlantic Airways afloat, but it needs a UK-backed loan to ride out the storm.

Virgin Australia's fight for survival triggered an ugly feud with its larger domestic rival. Qantas Airways argued Virgin shouldn't be rewarded with a bailout, while Virgin accused Qantas of spreading false rumors about its ebbing cash position - allegations denied by Qantas.

A voluntary administrator is usually appointed by directors after they decide the company is insolvent or nearing insolvency. Virgin Australia had about A$1.1 billion in cash at the end of 2019. The airline is dominated by Qantas in essentially a two-player market in Australia and hasn't made an annual profit for seven years.

At least two buyout groups were preparing to take over Virgin Australia, the Australian Financial Review reported last week.

Globally, airlines may lose out on US$314 billion in ticket sales this year because of the virus, according to the International Air Transport Association.

While governments in the United States and across Europe have stepped in with support, or said they intend to, the Australian government baulked at potentially owning a stake in a money-losing domestic airline. Ministers repeatedly said their goal is to have two competing airlines in Australia, though stopped short of singling out Virgin Australia for any special help.

Virgin Australia's stock was suspended earlier this month while restructuring talks continued. The shares last traded at less than nine Australian cents apiece on April 4, valuing the company at A$726 million.


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