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BRANSON, MONEY AND HIS PARTNERS
December 12, 2012 --A famous fictionalized film entrepreneur was once lionized as someone who "always makes money for his partners." Richard Branson, the flamboyant real-life British entrepreneur who has a knack for self-aggrandizing publicity and airline hijinks? Not so much.

Singapore Airlines dumped its 49 percent interest in Branson's Virgin Atlantic Airways on Tuesday for just $360 million. Singapore paid the equivalent of $960 million for the stake in December, 1999. The Asian carrier had long ago written off most of its Virgin investment and even longer ago had given up any hope of working profitably with Branson, who has a string of travel failures to bookend the modestly successful Virgin Atlantic.

Branson's new partner? Delta Air Lines (NYSE: DAL), which desperately wants the Virgin Atlantic link because, if nothing else, it is a strong competitor on the New York-London route, one of the most profitable and prestigious international airline runs on the planet.

If regulators approve and everything goes to plan, this is the immediate future of the Delta-Virgin tie-up:

  • A joint venture to share costs and revenue from all mutually operated flights. This kind of arrangement has a precedent: American Airlines and British Airways have a similar deal between the United States and England. The pact even has the requisite aviation jargon: "metal neutral." That means the airlines think business travelers are so oblivious that we won't notice or care whether we fly to and from London on Delta planes or Virgin Atlantic aircraft.
  • More than 30 roundtrips a day between the two countries, including nine between London's Heathrow Airport and Kennedy and Newark airports in the New York area. A Delta-Virgin Atlantic deal will control about 25 percent of U.S.-U.K. traffic compared to about 60 percent of American Airlines and British Airways.
  • Reciprocal frequent flyer benefits for travelers who participate in the Delta SkyMiles and Virgin Atlantic Flying Club programs. Elite members will also have access to both Delta Sky Club and Virgin Atlantic Clubhouse airport lounges.

While plans weren't nearly as specific when Singapore Air bought into Virgin Atlantic almost 13 years ago to the day, both sides cooed over their complementary strengths. Singapore was strong in Asia and across the Pacific and Virgin had the transatlantic position. "This really is a marriage made in heaven," Branson gushed at the time.

It was also a marriage fraught from the start. The faceless, conservative managers who dogmatically built Singapore Airlines into global prominence with high-quality, premium-class service and the subservient image of the Singapore Girl were never comfortable with Branson, a bombastic media hound who knew he was his own brand.

Branson would do the strangest things, like installing stand-up bars in business class. That generated tons of publicity and the custom of noisy British "lager louts," but infuriated business travelers who couldn't get any sleep on the overnight flights to London. Full-fare business-class customers got free limousine rides to and from the airports. Or, if they preferred, motorcycle transfers. He promoted in-flight massages and drive-through check-in facilities. He also built what are universally praised as clever, comfortable and quite attractive airport clubs.

Overall, however, he's been a diffident and distracted airline operator. After a decade of being out-promoted and out-styled by Virgin Atlantic, British Airways was the first airline in the world to install fully flat beds in its business classes. BA's 2000 innovation caught Branson flat-footed; he responded with ephemera (propeller-shaped swizzle sticks) and a bald-faced lie: He claimed he was developing double beds. The whopper got him plenty of publicity, but there were never any double beds and it took until 2004 for Virgin to match BA's flat-bed initiative.

He refused to join airline alliances, launched unsuccessful carriers in Europe and Africa and missed the rise of the Middle Eastern upstarts such as Emirates and Qatar Airways. They've pioneered all of the innovative premium-class passenger improvements of the last five or six years and left Virgin Atlantic looking tired and stale.

Branson was also a bad business partner. He burned through several sets of investors for his U.S. and Australian airline ventures. Singapore Airlines had been shopping its Virgin stake for years. However, all the ever-diplomatic Singaporeans would say Tuesday was that Virgin deal had "not performed to expectations and the synergies the parties originally hoped for have not materialized."

But one of the money men involved in the formation of JetBlue Airways, a carrier Branson envisioned branding as Virgin America, was blunter. David Neeleman, JetBlue's founder, "told Branson to take a hike because he wanted to run the airline his way," he told me over the weekend.

Launched in 2000, JetBlue is the most successful, and consistently profitable, start-up in the 35 years since U.S. airline deregulation. Branson couldn't get an airline called Virgin America in the air until 2007 and, despite good reviews from passengers, it's never been profitable and is now shrinking.

So why would Delta take a flyer with Branson when so many others have been disappointed? The disproportionate importance of New York and a grander vision than Singapore Air ever had.

Since its 2005 bankruptcy and 2008 merger with Northwest Airlines, Delta has transformed itself into one of the industry's most fearsome and financially nimble players. It dumped or closed its unprofitable commuter airlines, slashed flights at marginal hubs such as Memphis and Cincinnati, bought its way into New York's LaGuardia Airport and even purchased an oil refinery to mitigate high jet-fuel prices. It is spending billions to upgrade its fleet, improve premium-class cabins and modernize airport facilities. And it is flush with cash—about $5 billion, a gigantic pile by airline standards—so the $360 million spent to become Branson's partner is a modest amount.

But the thought of Branson and the driven managers who run Delta co-existing long together is almost as ludicrous as Branson and Singapore Airlines working harmoniously. It may be that Branson may be seeking an exit strategy of his own.

Although he publicly insists that he isn't leaving the airline business and that the Virgin Atlantic brand will survive, Branson called in Deutsche Bank two years ago to examine options. The airline industry is much costlier and higher risk than it was when Branson bought into and then launched what became Virgin Atlantic in 1984.

Branson wasn't even in New York on Tuesday at the event to publicize the Delta purchase. He made one brief, disjointed video presentation and then disappeared. That left Delta chief executive Richard Anderson in charge.

ABOUT JOE BRANCATELLI Joe Brancatelli is a publication consultant, which means that he helps media companies start, fix and reposition newspapers, magazines and Web sites. He's also the former executive editor of Frequent Flyer and has been a consultant to or columnist for more business-travel and leisure-travel publishing operations than he can remember. He started his career as a business journalist and created JoeSentMe in the dark days after 9/11 while he was stranded in a hotel room in San Francisco. He lives on the Hudson River in the tourist town of Cold Spring.

THE FINE PRINT This column is Copyright © 2012 American City Business Journals. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission. JoeSentMe.com is Copyright © 2012 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.