By David Leo
Photo courtesy Virgin America
Up for sale, Virgin America (NASDAQ:VA) has some suitors lining up. It has received takeover bids from JetBlue Airways Corp. (NASDAQ:JBLU) and Alaska Air Group Inc. (NYSE:ALK). In this era of the mega carriers (consider the mergers of United Airlines and Continental Airlines, Delta Air Lines and Northwest Airlines, and American Airlines and USAir), a tie-up with another carrier strengthens Virgin's competitive ability. And while it is almost certain that the merger would be with another American carrier, with analysts placing bets on JetBlue as the best fit, apparently some unidentified Asian carriers have also expressed interest. Still, be that as a remote possibility, one cannot help but be curious and speculate who the likely candidates might be.
Two big names come to mind immediately because of their successes, networks and financial capability, namely Cathay Pacific Airways (OTCPK:CPCAY) and Singapore Airlines (OTCPK:SINGY). Both airlines are keen on expanding their US market. Cathay flies to Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, New York and San Francisco while Singapore Airlines (SIA) operates to Houston, Los Angeles, New York and San Francisco. Both airlines have codeshare access to several other destinations. Cathay's codeshare partners include Alaska Airlines and American Airlines while SIA already codeshares with Virgin and with JetBlue.
So it looks like SIA more than Cathay would be favoured on relationships alone. Since foreign ownership rules governing US airlines require the bid to be submitted jointly with a US partner, it would be convenient for SIA to join hands with JetBlue. Of course, Cathay may partner Alaska Airways, but historically Cathay is not quite interested in equity participation. Although it has a 20.3% stake in Air China and 49% in Air China Cargo, that could be a matter of expedience to secure its market in the growing China mainland market.
SIA, on the other hand, limited by a hinterland market, tried in its early years to grow through acquisitions. In 1999, it bought 49% of Virgin Atlantic and subsequently 25% of Air New Zealand. Although both buys subsequently proved to be lemons, resulting in heavy losses, the misstep might be less strategic than circumstantial. Unfortunately that has hurt SIA deeply more psychologically than financially as the airline became more cautious about such moves. In subsequent years it failed in its seemingly reluctant bid for a stake in China Eastern Airlines, and the SIA Group was plagued by the poor decisions of its budget subsidiary Tigerair in joint ventures in Indonesia and the Philippines. In Oct 2012 SIA bought a 10% stake in Virgin Australia, joining two other foreign partners namely Air New Zealand and Etihad Airways. In much the same way that Cathay needed to secure its market in China partnering with Air China, SIA needed to secure its Australian market against the competition by Qantas. Six months after, SIA increased its stake to 19.9%.
But is SIA even interested in a stake in Virgin when its codeshare partnership with JetBlue already places it in an advantageous position to benefit from a JetBlue takeover of Virgin? Would a bid jointly with an Asian partner jeopardise JetBlue's chances if the powers that be preferred an all-American merger a la the big three of United, Delta and American?
Besides Cathay and SIA, one should not ignore the voracious appetite of the China carriers in the national trend to acquire foreign assets. And why must it be premised on full-service carriers that are already serving destinations in the US? What about a budget carrier with dreams of new frontiers? Maverick AirAsia (OTC:AIABF) chief Tony Fernandes who models himself after Virgin guru Richard Branson and who had been where others were hesitant, even afraid, to go may yet surprise with an expression of interest even if it is no more than just that. He is one of the few airline chiefs who, like Ryanair's Michael O'Leary and Qantas' Alan Joyce, understood what an opportune good dose of publicity could do.
All this, of course, is speculative. Asian carriers are likely to be less concerned this time than when the mergers of the American big three took place. Together with Southwest Airlines (NYSE:LUV), the big three control 80% of the American market. Virgin and its alleged interested parties JetBlue and Alaska are all largely domestic carriers. Even if Southwest throws in a bid (but for its size that may not pass the antitrust law as easily), it is still the same scenario. SIA's connections with JetBlue and Virgin will continue to stand it in good stead, but if it's Alaska that carries the day, then it is Cathay that stands to benefit from the new, extended connection. Or does it really matter when there are already subset agreements across partnership lines that allow you to fly an airline of one alliance and connect on another in a rival group? That's how complex today's aviation has become.
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