Branson makes Virgin pledge as feud with Walsh escalates

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The Independent Online

Sir Richard Branson pledged to keep control of his airline after his arch-rival, BA chief Willie Walsh, said that Singapore Airlines' sale of its stake in Virgin Atlantic would lead to the demise of the brand.

Singapore Airlines is finalising the sale of its 49 per cent stake in Virgin Atlantic to Delta, the US carrier, in a deal expected to be valued at between $300m (£186m) and $500m.

Barring last-minute hitches, Virgin Atlantic is set to announce a transatlantic joint venture with Delta in a related agreement that would be announced alongside, or shortly after, the sale of Singapore Airlines' stake.

As the parties hammered out the details of the deals yesterday, Sir Richard rejected rumours that he was in talks to sell part of his controlling 51 per cent stake in Virgin Atlantic. Reports had suggested he was looking to strike a deal with Air France-KLM, Delta's European partner, in a transaction which, together with the acquisition of Singapore's stake in Virgin Atlantic, would have given the partners a controlling stake in the airline.

Slapping down taunts made by Mr Walsh that Virgin Atlantic would eventually disappear if Delta bought a 49 per cent stake in the airline, Sir Richard reacted angrily on his blog: "Rumours have been spread in the press that I am planning to give up control of Virgin Atlantic and, according to Willie Walsh, that our brand will soon disappear. This is wishful thinking and totally misguided."

He added: "Virgin Atlantic was my baby 28 years ago when we set up with just one plane. Like all children, they never really stop being your babies" before going on to say that "contrary to Mr Walsh's hopes, we have no plans to disappear".

Sir Richard was responding to comments by Mr Walsh, chief executive of BA-owner International Airlines Group (IAG), who said: "I can't see how an airline like [Delta] would need to keep a second brand like Virgin in its stable."

Mr Walsh added: "Delta believe they are the number one airline in the world, so what they would want to do is acquire the slots at Heathrow to enable them to have a strong presence at Heathrow".

The joint venture between Virgin Atlantic and Delta is expecting to involve a revenue-sharing deal on flights between the UK and the US and a code-share agreement, allowing both to sell flights on the other airline and split ticket sales.

Sir Richard challenged Mr Walsh to a bet yesterday, offering to "pay £1m to their [BA] staff if Virgin Atlantic disappears within, say, five years. If not, BA pays our staff £1m … will BA accept the challenge?"

Virgin Atlantic declined to comment on its joint venture with Delta, or the sale of Singapore Airlines' stake. BA declined to comment on Sir Richard's offer of a bet.

Separately, Virgin Atlantic announced the details of a short-haul business to compete with British Airways on routes linking Heathrow and Scotland.

Meanwhile, unions at IAG's Iberia airline have called off a six-day strike planned for later this month.

Airline bosses' war of words

"I've made no secret of the fact. I don't think he likes me either" - Willie Walsh when asked back in January if he disliked Sir Richard Branson

"I'm not one of [Sir Richard's] admirers. I don't see him as someone who deserves my admiration. Other people have done more in the airline industry" - Mr Walsh on Sir Richard this year

"It's no wonder BA is in the state it is in if he has time to watch the Money show" - Sir Richard in 2008 after Mr Walsh disputed his claims that Sir Richard talked about price-fixing on the BBC's 'Money Programme'