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Virgin to file for voluntary administration as soon as tomorrow - reports

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Virgin Australia has reportedly filed for voluntary administration as it’s overwhelmed by massive debt brought on by the coronavirus lockdowns.

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An airline spokesman wouldn’t comment on Monday evening about various media reports.

The Sydney Morning Herald and the Age reported that a decision was expected to be made at Monday night’s board meeting and that accounting firm Deloitte was expected to run the administration process, including finding potential buyers to keep it flying.

Deloitte referred comment back to the airline.

Melbourne-based private equity firm BGH Capital, whose co-founder Ben Gray led an unsuccessful bid in 2006 to buy Qantas, is among the private equity firms said to be interested in Virgin Australia.

With air travel down over 95 per cent because of the lockdown the airline had been seeking government assistance to help its financial situation but was rebuffed in its request for a $1.4 billion loan from the Morrison government.

“They have some very big shareholders with deep pockets,” treasurer Josh Frydenberg said.

Despite its ASX listing, Virgin Australia is 90 per cent foreign owned, with Etihad, Singapore Airlines and two Chinese conglomerates HNA and Nanshan Group owning around 20 per cent each, while Richard Branson’s Virgin Group owns 10 per cent.

The NSW and Queensland government had both said they were interested in throwing the airline a financial lifeline.

Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews said on Monday he’d been having conversations with Virgin for “many, many months before the global pandemic about their future”.

But he added his government was not interested in its taxpayers putting in large amounts of money “when all jobs were going to stay in Queensland or jobs could potentially even leave Victoria”.

Virgin halted 90 per cent of its flights and stood down 80 per cent of its workforce on March 25, maintaining just 17 destinations to transport essential services, critical freight and logistics.

On Monday, Fitch Ratings and Moody’s both downgraded Virgin’s long-term rating due to concerns about its viability.

“In our view, without additional funding over the next few months, there is a high chance that the airline will not be able to survive the impact of the COVID-19 shut down,” Fitch said, adding that the federal government’s relief package provides little support past this fiscal year given the grounding of most of Virgin’s fleet.

Earlier, State Development Minister Cameron Dick said the Government would consider adding to the $200 million it has offered to keep the airline in Queensland.

“If there is more to put into that we will consider it,” Dick said.

“There is a lot needed to keep it going, but what is the cost of losing a two-airline policy?

“It was catastrophic when Ansett went under.”

He said people were kidding themselves if they believed an overseas airline would emerge to fill the void if Virgin collapsed.

“Airlines around the world are struggling,” he said.

Dick also warned NSW to “back right off” if it continued to move towards stealing the Virgin base from Brisbane.

“NSW has a pea-shooter, we have a bazooka and we are prepared to use it,” he said.

“At a time when their jobs hang in the balance, the 1200 Queensland families who depend on those head office jobs should not have to face the threat of being forced to move to Sydney.

“This is a time of national crisis, all governments should be working together to support jobs, not threatening them with the disruption and dislocation of an interstate move.

“Any move south would also worsen the company’s financial problems, as it would face higher Sydney costs of leasing, housing and traffic congestion.”

Fitch Ratings also claimed that without additional funding over the next few months, there was a high chance that the airline would not be able to survive the impact of the COVID-19 shutdown.

“We believe the Government’s relief package announced in March 2020, which provides refunds of airport charges incurred since February 2020, provides little support past 2020 given the grounding of most of VAH’s fleet.

“Further, the Government’s announcement that it will subsidise a minimum domestic network from April to June 2020 will also provide little liquidity relief for the airline above what it could save with the grounding of its fleet.”

It follows claims by Tourism Minister Kate Jones that the coronavirus pandemic had already cost the state’s industry $6.5 billion. The industry has also claimed that the shutdown was costing about $1 billion a month.

Tourism operators in places like Cairns fear it will take them years to recover from the shutdown.

Tourism Tropical North Queensland chief executive Mark Olsen said last week the northern region lost more than $200 million worth of bookings in March with the impact to the end of April estimated at $500 million in lost visitor spending.

Where to from here?

Jones told the ABC  the biggest concern for Queensland tourism operators was the future of Virgin Australia.

“The number one issue confronting the recovery for tourism is having two airlines operating,” she said.

“If Virgin goes under … it will take us twice as long to try to get back on our feet. We rely on competition in the skies.”

What about the cruise industry?

With significant growth in the cruise industry in recent years, the sector had been expected to continue its upward climb.

In early March, Palaszczuk donned a hard hat and fluoro vest to again inspected construction on the Brisbane International Cruise Terminal.

The new terminal, she said, would triple the capacity of Brisbane’s cruise industry to bring over 760,000 visitors each year.

But how many people will still be keen to set sail after weeks of almost daily stories on the spreading of coronavirus infection via cruise ships?

Five of the six Queenslanders who have died from COVID-19 were cruise passengers.

“It will take time before we see this industry rebuild,” Ms Jones said.

Federal Tourism Minister Simon Birmingham has gone further.

“Cruise travel, you would expect to be sitting right towards the end, if not the very last thing, that is reactivated again, given the difficulties Australia has faced with the cruise sector,” Mr Birmingham said.

Ports in Townsville and Cairns are being upgraded to accommodate much larger cruise ships.

The Gold Coast has also been seeking a slice of the action, with Mayor Tom Tate doggedly pursuing a cruise ship proposal for The Spit.

Jones suggested that project might now face a delay.

“This is a decision that has been made by the Mayor of the Gold Coast. He has just recently been elected, I’m sure that will be top of his mind,” she said.

“My feeling is that a number of projects that were earmarked, will obviously be delayed if demand isn’t there.”

– with additional reporting by AAP

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