Virgin Atlantic nears £1bn rescue deal

US hedge fund Davidson Kempner Capital Management and airline's billionaire founder Richard Branson will provide about £200m each

Virgin Atlantic Airline planes are pictured at the apron at Manchester Airport in north-west England, on June 8, 2020, as the UK government's planned 14-day quarantine for international arrivals to limit the spread of the novel coronavirus begins.  / AFP / Oli SCARFF

Virgin Atlantic Airways is poised to announce a rescue worth at least £1 billion ($1.25bn/Dh4.6bn), after clearing the last major hurdle to the deal, according to people familiar with the matter.

Negotiations with credit-card processors holding back some £200 million of sales have been resolved, said the people, who asked not to be named.

An announcement could come on Tuesday, after final approval of the package, one of the people said.

US hedge fund Davidson Kempner Capital Management will provide about £200m in fresh lending. Billionaire founder Richard Branson will contribute about the same after raising money from his Virgin Galactic Holdings space venture.

The UK airline will also get relief on some £400m owed, with owners Delta Air Lines and Mr Branson’s Virgin Group, along with jet-leasing firms, granting concessions on payment terms, the people said.

The rescue will mark a coup for Mr Branson, who managed to secure a private bailout after the UK government refused to contribute taxpayer funds when Virgin Atlantic was grounded by the coronavirus crisis. After months of uncertainty, the mogul -- who turns 70 this week -- is set to retain control of an airline he founded in 1984. Still, its future prospects hinge on the return of transatlantic travel.

New York-based Davidson Kempner, which has about $30bn of assets under management, won the deal after offering more favourable terms than other potential backers, people familiar with the matter said on July 10. An alliance of Elliott Management Corporation and UK investment firm Greybull Capital declined to match it, while Centerbridge Partners stepped back after coming late to the process.

Mr Branson’s abode in the British Virgin Islands – where residents pay no income or capital-gains taxes – made a taxpayer bailout politically controversial. The UK government earlier rejected his plea for a loan guarantee for Crawley, England-based Virgin Atlantic, on the grounds that its credit rating was too low.

The snub launched weeks of frenzied talks to save the stricken airline. Chief executive Shai Weiss pitched his recovery strategy to a dozen potential supporters in a virtual presentation in May.

That led to interest from several parties, while Mr Branson raised more than $400m to help his companies by selling shares of Virgin Galactic.

One of the thorniest issues involved freeing up credit-card payments withheld by settlement firms in case Virgin Atlantic went bust. That matter was resolved in the last few days, the people said.

Delta, which owns 49 per cent of Virgin Atlantic, has said it wouldn’t put in more cash. However, the US airline offered to make a significant contribution by delaying outstanding marketing fees and other dues, the people said. Virgin Group also waived some fees.

Mr Branson, then a 30-something music entrepreneur, started Virgin Atlantic after a trip to the Caribbean on a commercial airliner was canceled at the last minute. He chartered a plane on the spot, paying with his credit card, and sold seats to the other passengers whose flight had been bumped.

In time, the company grew to become the only credible UK competitor to British Airways, inciting an intense rivalry that continues to this day. Mr Branson’s airline, with more than 40 jets in its fleet, operates mainly on transatlantic routes between London and US destinations like New York and Los Angeles.

Normally this is the most profitable corner of the entire airline industry. But the carrier has had to park its fleet due to the coronavirus, and said it would cut 3,150 jobs, after restrictions on flying between the US and the UK caused a collapse in the trade.

The airline's London Gatwick operation has been shut down and it is keeping its main hub at London Heathrow. The company plans to restart flights soon.