Bain Capital makes a giant bet on the beleaguered airline industry

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Bain Capital LP agreed to buy collapsed Virgin Australia Holdings Ltd. in one of the biggest single bets on the airline industry since it was shattered by the coronavirus pandemic.

Administrator Deloitte named Bain as the airline’s new owner on Friday, hours after rival buyout firm Cyrus Capital Partners LP withdrew its bid. The value of the deal wasn’t disclosed, though Deloitte said there will be “a significant injection of capital” into the airline.

Bain’s investment is a brave bet on a sector enduring its biggest crisis ever, as well as on the Virgin Australia business itself. Larger rival Qantas Airways Ltd. this week depicted a bleak outlook, cutting 6,000 jobs, grounding about 100 planes and raising as much as A$1.9 billion ($1.3 billion).

While domestic travel is slowly recovering, Australia’s government has said the country’s borders could be kept largely closed until 2021. Airlines worldwide are likely to lose $84 billion and see their revenues halve this year, according to the International Air Transport Association, which expects 2020 to go down as the worst year financially in the history of aviation.

Virgin Australia collapsed in April under A$6.8 billion in borrowings as the outbreak halted global travel. Even before coronavirus-related restrictions nearly froze revenue, Virgin Australia had lost money for seven consecutive years.

Deloitte said Friday it’s still not possible to determine how much of Virgin Australia’s debt can be recovered, though more details will come in a report to creditors that’s due before the end of August.

Shareholders, though, will probably get nothing, Deloitte said. Virgin Australia was almost entirely owned by four foreign aviation groups — Singapore Airlines Ltd., Etihad Airways PJSC, HNA Group Co. and Nanshan Group Co. — that each owned 20% stakes. Richard Branson’s Virgin Group owned about 10%.

Deloitte’s decision ends an auction process that initially drew interest from more than 20 parties. Cyrus exited with a fiery attack on the sale process, accusing Deloitte of a “lack of engagement” since the U.S. investment group submitted its takeover proposal on June 22.

In a separate statement, Bain said it will strengthen Virgin Australia’s regional services and continue serving business travelers. Bain is backing Managing Director Paul Scurrah, who had already started to cut costs and simplify the airline when the virus struck.

The carrier’s headquarters will stay in Queensland, the state government said.

Bain’s deal may face a further challenge from Virgin Australia’s bondholders, who this week submitted their own plan to swap their debt for new shares under an independent board. And the sale agreement with Bain still needs to be approved by creditors.

In April, Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s government refused to give the airline even A$200 million to survive, tipping Virgin Australia in alongside U.K. carrier FlyBe as one of the world’s highest-profile corporate casualties from coronavirus.

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