Knot tied over a long weekend

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THE MARRIAGE that stunned the airline industry was years in the courtship but it was finally sealed in the space of a weekend at London's Four Seasons hotel, writes Michael Harrison.

Singapore Airlines, famous for the distinctive sarongs worn by its flight attendants, first offered to buy a stake in Virgin Atlantic seven years ago. But it was not until Richard Branson turned up on the doorstep of SIA's chief executive, Dr Cheong Choong Kong, in October, inviting him to table an offer, that the affair blossomed.

The two men, each backed by a five-strong team, began final negotiations last Saturday morning. By lunchtime no progress had been made and Dr Cheong feared he would be flying home to Singapore empty-handed when Mr Branson sent him a scrap of foolscap paper torn from one of his notebooks.

It contained two sentences. One indicated that the two sides were getting close on price. The other asked who was paying for lunch. "A typical question from a billionaire," observed Dr Cheong. The "marriage made in heaven" (Mr Branson's description) was eventually sealed at 6pm on Sunday.

Dr Cheong, who now plans to have Mr Branson's note framed on his office wall, said that the Virgin chairman picked up the tab. At pounds 600m, it is the most expensive free lunch he has ever had.