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Branson sews cash parachute for Virgin Atlantic with $300m Virgin Galactic share sale

COVID’s been harder on airlines than space companies

Richard Branson last week offloaded 10.4 million shares of Virgin Galactic, worth US$300M, to prop up his other businesses including pandemic-damaged airline Virgin Atlantic.

It is the third time Branson’s shifted millions of dollars of Virgin Galactic’s shares since it listed on the New York Stock Exchange in 2019. A regulatory filing shows the price of each share ranged between US25.75 and US$34.39. The shares represent about four percent of Virgin Galactic. Post-sell, Branson remains the biggest investor in the space company with 18 percent holding.

The sub-orbital tourism venture's stock price wobbled in response to the sale, first falling three percent in early trading and then recovering at one percent down, but has struggled to stay steady and level since.

The septuagenarian’s offloading of Virgin Galactic stock was not meant to be a sign of wavering commitment to space, but rather a way to build capital for the rest of Virgin Group’s portfolio.

“Virgin intends to use the net proceeds from this sale to support its portfolio of global leisure, holiday and travel businesses that continue to be affected by the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, in addition to supporting the development and growth of new and existing businesses,” said Virgin Group in a statement. The biz said it remains the largest single shareholder of Virgin Galactic.

COVID-related travel bans have crushed airline profitability worldwide. Virgin Atlantic was not able to avoid the turbulence, suffering an 80 percent drop in both passenger numbers and revenue in 2020.

The airline, which is 51 percent owned by Virgin Group and 49 percent owned by Delta Airlines, has needed help to keep it aloft. Branson sold Virgin Galactic shares back in May 2020 to keep the airline operating and in September 2020 the company received $1.6B loan from private-equity firm Davidson Kempner after the UK government refused to provide Virgin Atlantic with emergency support.

Reports say Branson is considering listing Virgin Atlantic to resolve some of the current cash flow problems.

The sale comes a month after the billionaire took a morning trip almost all the way into space and a few weeks since announcing Q2 2021 results in which Virgin Galactic reported strong cash and cash equivalents of US$552M and a net loss of US$94M, compared to US$74M net loss in Q2 2020. ®

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