Virgin Atlantic brand at risk in Delta takeover move

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The Independent Online

The Virgin Atlantic brand will disappear from the skies if Delta succeeds with its bid for Sir Richard Branson's airline, Willie Walsh claimed in the latest in a long line of verbal spars between the two aviation bosses.

Delta, the second-biggest United States airline, is interested in buying Singapore Airlines' 49 per cent stake in Virgin, as the Asian airline tries to move its focus from the crowded European market to South-east Asia and Australia.

"I can't see how an airline like [Delta] would need to keep a second brand like Virgin in its stable," Mr Walsh said. He also predicted Sir Richard would sell out of Virgin if Delta did successfully bid.

To bid for Virgin successfully, Delta would have to invest alongside Air France-KLM, its European partner, due to European Union aviation rules. Sir Richard is reported to be in final negotiations to cede control to the consortium with the chance that a deal could be agreed as soon as later this week.

Yesterday, Mr Walsh, speaking in the galley of a British Airways Boeing 777 kitchen, admitted: "I've never had anything nice to say about [Virgin and Sir Richard] so I'm not going to have anything nice to say now."

Mr Walsh and Sir Richard have been sniping at each other for over a decade. In April this year the Irishman launched an attack on his rival, branding his opinions "irrelevant" and saying he had no admiration for the serial entrepreneur after Virgin appealed against the European competition regulator's approval of the takeover of BMI by IAG.

Mr Walsh went on to say: "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."

The pair's feud kicked off in 2006, when a tip-off from Virgin led to competition authorities investigating British Airways for alleged price-fixing. Virgin escaped without penalty for blowing the whistle, while BA was fined £271.5m.

Meanwhile, in a big week for the airline industry, Virgin today revealed plans for domestic flights from London to Scotland and Manchester from spring next year. Aer Lingus will provide the aircraft, maintainance and crew for the flights, which will be Virgin branded.

Aer Lingus had bid to acquire the slots but has now signed a letter of intent to lease the craft and staff for the 24 domestic flights a day which will be added to Virgin's existing long-haul network.

Virgin will take up nine of the 12 daily pairs of Heathrow slots given up by BA to meet competition rules. From April Virgin will run six round-trip flights a day between Heathrow and Edinburgh, with three daily round-trip flights between Heathrow and Aberdeen. It will also switch three of its own Heathrow slots for daily round-trip services between Heathrow and Manchester.