IAG ‘very interested’ in Virgin, but only for slots: Walsh

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Willie Walsh, chief executive of British Airways/Iberia parent International Airlines Group (IAG), says the company would be "very interested" in acquiring Virgin Atlantic, but only for its London Heathrow slots. It has no interest in the brand.

"When I look at Virgin, what I see are slots at Heathrow. And I suspect anybody looking at Virgin sees it that way, because if it is someone from within the industry, then I don't see that they'll want to retain the Virgin brand, particularly a brand that is intrinsically linked to a personality," he says.

Speaking to Airline Business for its March 2011 cover interview, Walsh pointed to the recent spat between EasyJet and its high-profile shareholder Stelios Haji-Ioannou, and questioned the benefit of acquiring a brand associated with someone who "some might describe as a 'loose cannon'. Why would you want to acquire a business that came with some problems like that?"

In December, Virgin Atlantic hired Deutsche Bank to carry out a review that could result in a sale or see the carrier join an alliance. Virgin Atlantic director of sales and marketing Paul Dickinson said this week that he expected the airline to retain the brand, whatever the outcome of the review: "Virgin Atlantic is one of the most successful brands in the world from a branding perspective and I can't see a scenario where the Virgin brand would disappear from the airline," he says.

But Walsh says the only interest IAG has in Virgin is its slots: "If they conclude that what they're selling is, in effect, their slots at Heathrow, then we'd be very interested," he says.

According to reports, Air France-KLM and its SkyTeam alliance partner Delta Air Lines, as well as Abu Dhabi-based Etihad Airways, are interested in some form of deal with Virgin. Walsh is reported to have said at a Geneva aircraft finance conference this week that he was "not bothered" about the prospect of a competitor acquiring a stake in Virgin.

Meanwhile, Walsh told Airline Business that his views on Virgin apply to BA's other major Heathrow rival, Lufthansa-owned BMI, about a potential acquisition: "It's no secret that we've been interested in BMI, but largely because of its slot position at Heathrow rather than the brand."