Virgin Atlantic Airways has put advisers on standby to handle a potential administration as it races to secure a £500m rescue that would enable Sir Richard Branson’s flagship company to survive the coronavirus pandemic.
Sky News has learnt that Virgin Atlantic retained Alvarez & Marsal (A&M), a restructuring specialist, earlier this week to assemble contingency plans for an insolvency process at the airline.
Sources said this weekend that A&M’s work would be focused on options for a pre-pack administration that would see a restructured and financially viable carrier emerge from the COVID-19 crisis.
The firm’s appointment does not mean that insolvency is inevitable, but reflects the legal obligation of Virgin Atlantic’s directors to prepare for such an outcome, according to aviation experts.
A pre-pack deal would wipe out the equity of existing shareholders – Sir Richard’s holding company and Delta Air Lines.
The news of A&M’s role has emerged just days after Virgin Atlantic said it would axe more than 3,000 jobs – or about one-third of its workforce – to aid its survival battle.
The company’s plans include ending its 36-year tenure at Gatwick Airport, reducing the size of its fleet and putting its Boeing 747s into early retirement.
Virgin Atlantic’s board remains in discussions with the government and private investors about providing new capital that would allow the company to implement its restructuring plans.
Houlihan Lokey, the investment bank advising Virgin Atlantic on the process, is understood to be in ongoing talks with up to a dozen parties, said to include Apollo Global Management, Centerbridge and Cerberus Capital Management.
Further negotiations are said to be planned with Whitehall officials during the course of next week.
A pre-pack administration, which paves the way for new investors to take control of a restructured company, is a well-established method in Britain.
Such a procedure is particularly complex in the airline industry, however, because an insolvency would automatically terminate Virgin Atlantic’s aircraft leasing and take-off and landing slot agreements.
Emergency laws to reform the UK’s insolvency procedures are likely to be presented to parliament next week.
Directors in boardrooms across Britain are wrestling with the impact of the coronavirus pandemic, with little expectation that Sunday’s announcement by Boris Johnson will offer optimism about their recovery prospects.
In the airline industry, bosses are dismayed that the government is preparing to introduce a two-week quarantine requirement for anyone flying into the country.
A call between airlines and ministers is scheduled to take place on Sunday to discuss the plans.
Virgin Atlantic is already anticipating that customer demand will be at least 40% lower during 2020, with only a gradual recovery next year.
This week, Willie Walsh, the outgoing chief executive of British Airways’ parent, International Airlines Group, dampened hopes that it would resume flying if the government introduced a 14-day quarantine requirement.
Airlines, airports and aviation services groups wrote to the prime minister on Thursday to beg for an extension to the emergency job retention scheme “for a few more months”.
The Treasury has, to date, been lukewarm about the idea of committing taxpayers’ money to Virgin Atlantic, partly because of its ownership by billionaire Sir Richard and Delta Air Lines, a US carrier which has itself just been bailed out by Washington.
The company recently received a capital injection amounting to more than $100m from Sir Richard’s Virgin Group.
It has also furloughed thousands of staff and seen its top executives agree substantial pay cuts because of the COVID-19 outbreak.
Fewer than a handful of Virgin Atlantic’s planes have been flying since the UK lockdown began in March, when Peter Norris, Virgin Group’s chairman, urged Mr Johnson to establish an industry-wide support package that could cost in the region of £7.5bn.
Hopes in the airline industry that such a rescue plan might be forthcoming appeared to be dashed, however, when Rishi Sunak, the chancellor, indicated that state aid would be available “only as a last resort” and after the support of existing government schemes and companies’ existing shareholders had been pursued.
Sir Richard recently made an impassioned defence of his group’s financial affairs, warning that the transatlantic airline he founded in the 1980s was likely to collapse without government support.
He has already seen Virgin Australia fall into a process called voluntary administration, putting thousands of jobs at risk.
Virgin Atlantic is seeking hundreds of millions of pounds in the form of a commercial loan, as well as a government guarantee on further sums owed to it by credit card companies.
The Financial Times reported on Saturday that Sir Richard was now free to sell hundreds of millions of pounds worth of shares in Virgin Galactic, his New York-listed space tourism venture.
Last month, Heathrow Airport and some of the aviation industry’s biggest manufacturers, including Airbus and Rolls Royce Holdings launched a frantic lobbying campaign to secure taxpayer support for Virgin Atlantic.
A Virgin Atlantic spokesperson said: “Because of significant costs to our business caused by unprecedented market conditions which the COVID-19 crisis has brought with it, we are exploring all available options to obtain additional external funding.
“We continue to take decisive action to reduce our costs, preserve cash and protect as many jobs as possible.
“Discussions with a number of stakeholders continue and are constructive, meanwhile the airline remains in a stable position.
“Virgin Atlantic is committed to continuing to provide essential connectivity on competitive terms to consumers and businesses in Britain and beyond, once we emerge from this crisis.”
BA, meanwhile, is consulting on up to 12,000 redundancies, while Ryanair has said it plans to axe 3,000 jobs.
Around 8,000 posts are under threat at Rolls Royce as the airline industry faces the gravest crisis in its history.