Coronavirus: Virgin Atlantic to seek bailout

NEW YORK (BBC): Virgin Atlantic is expected to ask for a government bailout worth hundreds of millions of pounds in the coming days, the BBC understands.

Requests for state aid are also expected from other airlines. The government has said it will only step in to help struggling airlines “as a last resort” on a case-by-case basis.

However, the Transport Secretary told MPs he can’t rule out the state taking an ownership stake in UK airlines that have been battered by coronavirus.

Grant Shapps told MPs on the Transport Select Committee that nothing had been ruled out in its response to coronavirus for the aviation sector.

Asked by Labour MP Ruth Cadbury if the government would consider buying a share of UK airlines that face collapse, Mr Shapps said: “It was important to save companies that would survive in normal times.

However, the Transport Secretary said current shareholders “must be part of the solution”. UK-based airlines have already announced measures to save money such as temporarily laying-off staff.

Virgin Atlantic had previously suggested the government offer UK carriers £7.5 billion in credit facilities. The airline’s founder Sir Richard Branson this week offered to inject £250 million into the Virgin Group, with most of that amount going to the airline.

Turbulent times

The vast bulk of flights to and from the UK have been grounded amid the coronavirus pandemic. Some airlines like British Airways are still operating a number of rescue flights to bring stranded Brits home.

Earlier this week, the government said it would not deliver a financial aid package for the aviation industry, but its emergency business measures, including a Bank of England scheme for firms to raise capital and employee wage subsidies, were available for airlines.

But industry group the International Air Transport Association (IATA) warned of an “apocalypse” in the aviation sector as it called on governments around the world for help.

The US Senate on Wednesday passed a $58 billion (£46.6 billion) aid package for its airline industry, which included cash for paying pilot, crew and staff salaries. To bail out, or not bail out? You’d be forgiven for being confused about whether the government is going to bailout UK-based airlines, or not.

First ministers indicated that an industry-wide bailout was on the cards. Virgin Atlantic went public and said £7.5bn was needed. But then an about turn from the Chancellor. Rishi Sunak wrote to airlines and airports telling them that an industry-wide emergency rescue package for the aviation industry wasn’t on its way after all.

What the government is offering is bespoke financial support on a case-by-case basis, but only once airlines have exhausted all other options. Ministers want to be sure that wealthy shareholders play their part.

The other reason an industry-wide package didn’t happen was because the airlines involved are ultimately rivals and where as some of them were champing at the bit for a government loan, others were against it.

The more cash-rich the airline, the less keen on a bailout. And, for some, cash is the immediate problem.