Discussions between Virgin America and the two bidders are ongoing, and a deal could be announced as early as next week, according to people familiar with the matter.
Virgin America received takeover offers from JetBlue Airways and Alaska Air after the carrier backed by billionaire Richard Branson put itself up for sale, according to people familiar with the matter.
Discussions between Virgin America and the two bidders are ongoing, and a deal could be announced as early as next week, the people said, asking not to be identified discussing private information.
A bid from Alaska could make sense to stem competition from Virgin America on routes along the West Coast.
But it would be easier for JetBlue to absorb the Virgin America fleet, because they both fly Airbus A320s. And for JetBlue, acquiring Virgin America could be a big growth move, giving it a western regional network it now lacks.
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It is unclear if other suitors will emerge, and Virgin America may yet decide to abandon sale negotiations in favor of remaining independent.
This past week, Bloomberg News reported that the carrier, which flies to destinations throughout the United States and Mexico, was working with financial advisers on a sale after receiving takeover interest. Virgin America’s stock has been up almost 10 percent since then, giving it a market capitalization of $1.3 billion.
Virgin America, based in Burlingame, Calif., sold stock in a $353 million initial public offering less than 18 months ago, pricing its shares at $23 apiece, data compiled by Bloomberg show.
Michael Boyd, aviation consultant with Boyd Group International of Evergreen, Colo., said Virgin America, which markets itself as “on a mission to make flying fun again,” has developed an enthusiastic customer base. It flies up and down the West Coast as well as on transcontinental routes out of its bases in San Francisco and Los Angeles.
On the transcontinental routes, it’s a competitor to JetBlue. On the West Coast routes it’s a competitor to Alaska.
Boyd said Alaska’s interest is more likely to be addressing that competition, rather than an ambition to grow.
But Alaska faces a serious obstacle to such an acquisition that JetBlue doesn’t have to worry about: Virgin America has a fleet of about 60 Airbus A320 jets.
While JetBlue flies those same Airbus jets, Alaska proudly promotes its fleet as “all-Boeing.”
For an airline to take on an entirely new airplane type is a major expense, because pilots, flight attendants and maintenance crews trained on one aircraft type would need retraining to work on different model planes.
If Alaska were to buy Virgin America, Boyd said, “They wouldn’t be buying anything with a lot of compatibility.”
Boyd said one option would be for Alaska to gradually shed the Virgin America jets and revert to an all-Boeing operation.
At the end of 2015, 53 of Virgin America’s 58 aircraft were leased. Those A320s could simply be returned to the lessors as the leases expire.
Russell Chew, former president and chief operating officer with JetBlue through 2010 and now a senior adviser to aerospace and transportation consultancy Nexa Capital, said that strategy could work.
Yet keeping a single fleet type is secondary to route-system considerations, he said.
Today, both JetBlue and Alaska are essentially regional carriers with some transcontinental routes.
“Neither of them want to be acquired, and so the two have a reason to want to grow and eventually to become a competitive U.S.(-wide) carrier on their own,” Chew said.
JetBlue has a strong regional network along the East Coast, mirroring Alaska’s strength on the West Coast. In addition, it flies important transcontinental routes out of New York and Boston.
By adding Virgin America’s West Coast regional network, JetBlue would greatly strengthen its transcontinental routes because it then would have multiple connection possibilities at both ends of the routes.
“JetBlue buying Virgin America would give them a whole western north-south route system they currently do not have,” Chew said.
That could help turn its current Californian destinations — especially Los Angeles and San Francisco — into hubs rather than spokes in its network.
In contrast, there’s much more overlap between Virgin America’s and Alaska’s West Coast routes, so merging the two doesn’t give Alaska the same benefit.
“JetBlue has more to gain than Alaska,” Chew said.
Alaska spokeswoman Bobbie Egan said the company doesn’t comment on rumors or speculation. JetBlue spokesman Doug McGraw said the carrier had the same policy. Virgin America didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment.
Virgin America was up $3.53 or 10.3 percent, at $37.70in trading Monday. Alaska Air Group rose 90 cents, or 1.1 percent, to $81.49. JetBlue Airways rose 55 cents, or 2.7 percent, to $20.79.