(Bloomberg) — Virgin Australia Holdings Ltd. became Asia’s first airline to fall to the coronavirus after the outbreak deprived the debt-burdened company of almost all income.
Administrators at Deloitte, who have taken control of the Brisbane-based carrier, aim to restructure the business and find new owners within months. More than 10 parties have expressed an interest, Deloitte said Tuesday.
Virgin Australia joins FlyBe — the U.K.’s biggest domestic airline before it collapsed last month — among the industry’s corporate casualties of the virus. Airlines have been pummeled by domestic and international travel bans that forced them to seek government aid.
Virgin Australia, which has furloughed 80% of its 10,000 workers, will continue to operate some flights for essential workers, freight and the repatriation of Australians. The airline’s frequent flyer program is a separate company and is not in administration.
Vaughan Strawbridge, one of four administrators at Deloitte, said the airline’s fate should be clear in two to three months. He said he doesn’t plan to change Virgin Australia’s operations or sack any workers.
“Generally you get the best outcome where you sell it as a whole, so that is definitely the preferred approach,” Strawbridge told reporters on Tuesday. There were “a number of very sophisticated parties who have got the capability to be part of the restructure,” he said.
The fate of Virgin Australia, which had more than A$5 billion ($3.2 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 government called on the airline’s shareholders to step in. Virgin Australia’s final plea for A$200 million in state aid was rebuffed on Monday, Chief Executive Officer Paul Scurrah said Tuesday.
Almost entirely owned by foreign airlines, Virgin Australia is a unique experiment in aviation. Singapore Airlines Ltd., Etihad Airways PJSC, HNA Group Co. and Nanshan Group Co. each own about 20% of the company. Richard Branson’s Virgin Group owns about 10%.
In a letter to Virgin staff on Monday, the British billionaire said his airlines in the U.K. and Australia wouldn’t survive the crisis without state support. Branson said he’s doing everything possible to keep Crawley, England-based Virgin Atlantic Airways Ltd. afloat, but it needs a U.K.-backed loan to ride out the storm.
Virgin Australia’s fight for survival triggered an ugly feud with its larger domestic rival. Qantas Airways Ltd. 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.
Globally, airlines may lose out on $314 billion in ticket sales this year because of the virus, according to the International Air Transport Association.
While governments in the U.S. 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 9 Australian cents apiece on April 4, valuing the company at A$726 million.
Nicholas Moore, a former CEO of Macquarie Group Ltd., will engage with the administrator on behalf of the Australian government to find a “market-led solution” to Virgin’s crisis, Treasurer Josh Frydenberg said Tuesday.