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Analysts Unconvinced Over Rumours That Richard Branson May Sell Majority Stake In Virgin Atlantic

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VIRGIN ATLANTIC
Branson seems set to hold on to his controlling stake in Virgin Atlantic - for now. | PA

Analysts have poured cold water on the suggestion that Sir Richard Branson could lose control of his Virgin Atlantic airline through deals with Delta in the near future, after rumours of a deal emerged on Monday.

Delta Air Lines is understood to have offered to buy Singapore Airlines' 49% holding in Virgin Atlantic, attracted by the stabilising economy and Virgin's slots at Heathrow.

The deal would leave Sir Richard with 51% of Virgin Atlantic, although there was a suggestion in the media that Delta's SkyTeam Alliance partner AirFrance/KLM, would be interested in buying some, if not all, of that 51%.

Delta and Air France-KLM came close to a deal in February 2011, but discussions broke down after they baulked at Sir Richard's asking price for rights of the Virgin brand.

It's well known that running an airline is expensive work, and Sir Richard knows it better than most; Virgin Atlantic posted a pre-tax loss of £80 million in the 12 months to the end of February this year.

In 2010, Sir Richard employed the services of Deutsche Bank to analyse the threats and possibilities for Virgin Atlantic.

Since then, he has been beaten in an attempt to buy BMI Midland by British Airways and Iberia, and has faced increasing pressure on its US flights from a deal between BA and American Airlines, although he did win the Heathrow landing slots BA was forced to give up when it acquired BMI Midland.

According to a report in the FT, Sir Richard would favour the Delta/Singapore Airlines deal as it would strengthen his US/UK routes, although it's unclear what he would do with his remaining 51% stake.

When Huff Post UK asked Virgin Atlantic for the latest on the deal, a spokesman told us: "We are always talking to many airlines on a number of different matters, but we never comment on the details of these discussions."

Speaking to Huff Post UK, analysts remained unconvinced that Sir Richard would sell up and out of his much-prized airline just yet.

Charles Stanley analyst Douglas McNeill told Huff Post UK: "Buying Singapore's stake would give Delta no more than a minority position, which isn't much of a prize. So the mooted move by Delta would only make sense if its partner Air France-KLM invests as well.

"But it's hard to see why Air France-KLM would want to get involved given its need to husband cash for the profound restructuring it is undergoing."

Company Watch's business analyst Nick Hood agreed. “The trouble is that few airlines are financially healthy and few can see any hope of a return to the florid days before the world recession," he told Huff Post UK.

"We calculate health scores based on published accounts, comparing companies' actual results with seven key financial ratios on profitability, assets and funding to rate their financial strength. Virgin Atlantic comes out with a sub-par H-Score of only 37 out of a possible 100, but this makes it one of the less vulnerable airlines."

Hood refused to entirely rule out a deal however, noting if the price was right, Branson may be prepared to sell up some of his stake.

“Being the consummate dealmaker he is, it's not hard to see why Sir Richard Branson might see this as a good time to cash part of his stake, even if he loses control in the process. Delta's expansion ambitions may well mean that they will benchmark the value for the rest of his shares at a premium price," Hood concluded.

Virgin, which has its headquarters at Gatwick, has a fleet of 40 aircraft and flies around six million passengers a year to long-haul destinations.

Singapore Airlines paid £600m for its 49% stake in Virgin Atlantic in 1999 - reports in the FT suggested Delta would be looking to offer less than that figure to secure the deal.

Delta is America's biggest carrier by the number of passengers, carrying about 160m a year compared with United Airlines' 140m.

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