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Exclusive: Virgin Atlantic won't resume flights until August if UK introduces quarantine - source

LONDON (Reuters) - Virgin Atlantic will not be able to resume passenger flights until August at the earliest if Britain introduces a 14-day quarantine for travellers, according to a source at the airline.

FILE PHOTO: Virgin Atlantic's planes are seen parked at Manchester Airport, following the outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), Manchester, Britain, May 9, 2020. REUTERS/Phil Noble

The carrier is battling to stay afloat after grounding passenger flights amid the coronavirus pandemic and the source said it is trying for a private-only deal to secure its future, with around a dozen private equity and other firms expressing serious interest.

The introduction of a quarantine on travel into the UK would add further pressure on its finances.

“If the quarantine is in place, the earliest is August. If there’s no quarantine, you could see, maybe, July,” the source told Reuters.

British government ministers have said they plan a quarantine for most international travellers in the coming weeks, though they have provided few details.

Many airlines have warned that the quarantine policy will further hurt a sector which is already facing its biggest ever challenge, and there is increasing exasperation that as the government outlines its plan for lifting Britain’s lockdown, there is no clear plan for aviation.

Willie Walsh, the boss of British Airways owner IAG ICAG.L, said this week that the quarantine plans and comments from the government were hindering the prospect of any travel recovery.

The quarantine policy would leave Virgin Atlantic unable to fill planes, the source said, meaning that a resumption of flights would burn cash at a point when the airline is trying to preserve it.

The British-based airline said last week that it would lay off almost a third of its workforce due to the slump in air travel caused by the pandemic. The source said the airline also planned to defer delivery of aircraft on order.

Virgin Atlantic is seeking hundreds of millions of pounds in support from shareholders through working capital facilities and deferment or alleviation of payments that are due. It is also in discussion with creditors and the British government.

The source said that a dozen institutions had expressed serious private sector interest in a deal and they included investment firms Cerberus Capital Management, Centerbridge, Greybull, Apollo and Davidson Kempner.

Representatives at Apollo and Centerbridge declined to comment while officials at the other firms did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

There airline is also examining the possibility of a public-private partnership for the airline, where the government provides 500 million pounds ($606 million) in guarantees but may not ever need to hand over any cash, the source said.

Founder Richard Branson, whose Virgin Group owns 51% of Virgin Atlantic alongside U.S. airline Delta DAL.N with 49%, said in April the airline will only survive the impact of COVID-19 if it gets government support.

Britain has said that airlines need to exhaust private avenues of investment before individual support for companies is considered, and that airlines can access government support schemes for businesses more generally.

However, Virgin Atlantic does not have a credit rating, so it is unable to access the COVID Coroporate Financing Facility, which has been used by easyJet EZJ.L to help withstand the downturn.

The source said the airline was aiming to defer the delivery of aircraft it has on order over the next five years.

Virgin Atlantic has six Airbus AIR.PA A350s on order that are yet to be delivered, as well as 14 A330neos which are due for arrival from 2021.

Reporting by Alistair Smout; additional reporting by Pamela Barbaglia; Editing by Kate Holton and Guy Faulconbridge and Susan Fenton

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