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Virgin Atlantic Nears Deal for $500 Million Rescue

Christopher Jasper, Scott Deveau and David Hellier
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Virgin Atlantic Returns to Skies Bracing for Three-Year Slump

(Bloomberg) -- Virgin Atlantic Airways Ltd. is closing in on a 400 million-pound ($504 million) rescue led by Davidson Kempner Capital Management after the U.S. hedge fund offered more favorable terms than other potential backers, people familiar with the matter said.

Davidson Kempner has offered funding conditions that an alliance of Elliott Management Corp. and U.K. investment firm Greybull Capital declined to match, while Centerbridge Partners has stepped back after coming late to the process, according to the people, who asked not to be identified because the talks are private.

Billionaire Richard Branson would also inject cash into the airline he founded and controls. Virgin Atlantic could announce details of the financing package as soon as early next week if it’s able to pin down final elements, said one of the people. The Virgin Group board will be updated on the situation Friday and could meet to sign off on a deal after the weekend if sufficient progress is made, the person said.

As the deal stands now, the U.K. government, which earlier rejected a bailout request from the Crawley, England-based carrier on the grounds that its credit rating was too low, would have no role in the rescue, the person said.

A U.K. Treasury spokesman declined to comment.

Davidson Kempner and Elliott both declined to comment, while Centerbridge was unavailable for comment. Virgin Atlantic said it’s continuing to work on a comprehensive recapitalization.

“We greatly appreciate the support of our shareholders, creditors and private investors and by working together, we will ensure that Virgin Atlantic can emerge from the crisis a sustainably profitable airline, with a healthy balance sheet,” the airline said in an emailed statement.

New York-based Davidson Kempner, which has about $30 billion of assets under management, would provide about half the money, one of the people said. Branson has also committed to inject around 200 million pounds as part of a plan that wouldn’t affect equity holdings in the airline.

An agreement isn’t certain, and Elliott could seek to rekindle negotiations on its own terms if final hurdles aren’t cleared, one person said.

Remaining issues include freeing up about 200 million pounds in credit-card payments withheld by settlement firms in case Virgin Atlantic went bust, as well as discussions with creditors such as service providers and aircraft lessors, according to one person.

Delta Air Lines Inc., which owns 49% of Virgin Atlantic, would also make a significant contribution by delaying outstanding marketing fees and other dues. Virgin Group also would waive some fees. Savings could total 400 million pounds, Bloomberg has reported.

Bold Challenger

Virgin Atlantic was started in 1984 by Branson, then a 30-something music entrepreneur. The billionaire, now 69, has said he chartered a plane on a whim, after a trip to the Caribbean on a commerical airliner was canceled. He put the tab on his credit card and sold seats on the spot.

In time, the company grew to become the only credible U.K. competitor to British Airways, positioning itself as an irreverent upstart taking on the stodgy national flag carrier. Branson’s airline, with more than 40 jets in its fleet, operates mainly trans-Atlantic routes between London and U.S. destinations like New York and Los Angeles.

The carrier has had to park its fleet due to the coronavirus, and said it would cut 3,150 jobs, after restrictions on flying between the U.S. and the U.K. wrecked the lucrative North Atlantic trade. The London Gatwick operation has been shut down, while Virgin Atlantic is keeping its main hub at London Heathrow.

Chief Executive Officer Shai Weiss pitched his recovery strategy to a dozen potential supporters in May after Britain turned down the bailout request. That led to interest from several parties, while Branson -- who is also contending with the insolvency of Virgin Australia Holdings Ltd. -- has raised more than $400 million to help his companies by selling shares of space venture Virgin Galactic Holdings Inc.

(Updates with Airline’s founding from 12th paragraph)

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