By Soyoung Kim and Charmian Kok
NEW YORK/SINGAPORE Dec 3 Singapore Airlines
said on Monday it was in talks with interested parties
to sell its 49 percent stake in British carrier Virgin Atlantic,
with sources revealing that Delta Air Lines Inc was
among the potential suitors.
Delta, the second-largest U.S. airline by operating revenue
after United Continental Holdings, wants to gain access
to Virgin Atlantic's landing rights at London's Heathrow
airport, according to two people familiar with the matter.
Delta has been looking to acquire a Virgin Atlantic stake
for more than two years but previous talks broke down over price
and other issues, and there is no guarantee that its recent
discussions would result in a pact, the people said.
Singapore Airlines said in a brief statement it was in talks
with interested parties but did not name them. It also cautioned
that the discussions might not result in a deal.
The European Union requires that EU carriers be under
European control, meaning Delta would need to involve an EU
airline as a partner if it wanted majority control of Virgin.
Delta has been considering ways to partner with Air
France-KLM, which could also take a stake in Virgin
and allow the two carriers to acquire majority ownership, one of
the people said. Virgin founder Richard Branson owns 51 percent
of the airline.
Delta has made clear that it would like to expand at
Heathrow, a lucrative airport for prized corporate passengers
where landing slots are generally hard to acquire. Virgin is the
second-largest carrier at Heathrow after IAG's British
Delta's SkyTeam global alliance, which includes Air France
and 18 other airlines, trails its oneworld and Star Alliance
counterparts in slot access at Heathrow.
"Delta now finds itself going up against the combination of
American Airlines and British Airways," said George Hamlin, an
aviation consultant in Fairfax, Virginia, referring to the two
anchor members of the oneworld global alliance.
"British Airways brings along a feed from other destinations
- both Europe and intercontinental - at Heathrow. Delta is
basically a dead end at this point."
Branson, who set up Virgin Atlantic in 1984, has been
weighing the airline's future for years and two years ago
appointed Deutsche Bank to examine offers.
"We are always talking to many airlines on a number of
different matters but we never comment on the details of these
discussions," a Virgin Atlantic spokeswoman said on Sunday. News
of Delta's renewed interest in Virgin was first reported by the
Sunday Times of London.
Delta declined to comment. Air France were not immediately
available for comment outside regular business hours.
Heathrow, Europe's busiest airport, is operating at close to
full capacity after Britain's coalition government blocked its
expansion in 2010.
Virgin lost out in the battle to take over smaller UK
carrier bmi last year to IAG, giving the owner of British
Airways and Iberia more than 50 percent of the takeoff and
landing slots at Heathrow.
However in November, Virgin won all of the Heathrow takeoff
and landing slots that British Airways was forced to give up
after the acquisition of bmi.
Like other European carriers such as Air France and
Lufthansa, Virgin has been battered by rising fuel
prices and the euro zone crisis. It posted a loss of around 80
million pounds ($128 million) in its last full year.
Virgin, which is hunting for a new chief executive after
Steve Ridgway announced he would retire early next year, is not
a member of a global airline alliance.
Aviation consultant Hamlin said a tie-up with Delta could
give Virgin access to hundreds of markets on a one-stop
connecting basis in the United States. For Delta, such a deal
would help plug a weakness in its global network versus key
competitors and make it a strong player at Heathrow.
"London obviously is the premier market and Heathrow is by
and large the market leader. It's the lynchpin transatlantic
market in terms of size and revenue, particularly premium
traffic revenue," Hamlin said.