Virgin Australia chairman Elizabeth Bryan has confirmed discussions have been held about privatising Australia’s second biggest carrier but says there is no outcome yet.
Bryan told the airline’s annual meeting in Brisbane that the group had a small free float and many had asked whether it was appropriate to remain listed or to become a privately-held company.
Virgin’s free float is around 9 per cent with the majority of the carrier’s shares split between major investors Singapore Airlines, Etihad Airways, the Virgin Group and Chinese groups Nanshan and HNA Aviation.
Taking the airline private would mean a significant cost reduction but it would also reduce public scrutiny of the carrier.
“As an independent chair with a large and varied shareholder base, I am particularly conscious of what a small free float means for our minority shareholders,’’ she said Wednesday.
“It is my responsibility, and that of all our directors, to ensure the interests of minority shareholders are represented at the board. We have a responsibility to ensure that we act in the best interests of all shareholders and the long-term interest of the company.
“As part of fulfilling that responsibility, the board has held discussions about privatisation. However, there is no outcome to report to the market at this stage.’’
Bryan said the airline would remain firmly focused in 2018 on executing its plan to improve its financial performance though its Better Business restructuring program.
Virgin recorded a net loss of $A185.8m in the 2017 financial year but delivered its first positive cash flow since fiscal 2012 and reduced net debt by $A839m
Bryan said she expected the restructuring program to continue to track ahead of schedule.
“We will also continue to work on improving our balance sheet and maintaining the group’s positive momentum on cash and debt performance,’’ she said.
“John (CEO John Borghetti) and his team will build on the established position we have in the Australian domestic market and continue to leverage growth opportunities particularly in the Asian and North American markets.”
Commenting on the airline group’s outlook, Virgin chief executive John Borghetti said he expected the group’s underlying performance in the second and third quarters of the current financial year to continue to improve compared to the same periods in 2016-17.
This was based on a positive performance trajectory, an improved revenue performance since April, 2017, as well as forward sales, he said.
“This would represent four consecutive quarters of underlying performance improvement for the group,’’ he said.
Borghetti said the Virgin’s major transformation from a low-cost carrier to a full service airline and group of aviation businesses was complete.
But it continued to deliver innovation in areas such as the introduction of its Economy X extra legroom product, on-time performance, new services to Los Angeles and Hong Kong, the expansion of the Velocity frequent flyer program and Tigerair Australia’s move to Melbourne’s Terminal 4.
It would continue to further improve its customer offering with the introduction of fast internet and a move this month to daily services between Melbourne and Hong Kong, he said.
The Virgin boss said the airline would continue to look at ways to grow its footprint in Hong Kong and China to tap into the potential there.
The airline is working on the involved process of obtaining slots for new services to Asia and Borghetti told reporters later that he was hopeful they would be available “by this time next year”.
“What I could tell you is that we are working hard in getting additional slots in a couple of cities,” he said.
The plan was still to use the A330s to service Asia as Virgin obtained slots in Asian cities.
“They’re the perfect aircraft for it,” he said. “The -200s have longer reach than -300s and they’re just made for it. The product on them now is so good that business class is the world’s best business class according to airlineratings.com.
“So we’ve got he aircraft, we’re just missing the slots and we’re working on that.”
Looking forward, Borghetti said the focus was now on financial transformation aimed at delivering sustained profitability.
Virgin said its underlying pre-tax profit had improved by $A18m in this year’s first quarter compared to the same quarter last year and Borghetti estimated the Better Business program would deliver $A350m per year in annualised net free cash flow savings by the end of fiscal 2019.
He said that was about $A50m ahead of the original target.
“When we released our 2017 financial year results in August, we said we expected the positive momentum seen in the fourth quarter to continue and that underlying performance for the first quarter of the 2018 financial year would improve, compared to the first quarter of the 2017 financial year,’’ he said.
“I am pleased to confirm today that the positive trajectory from the end of the 2017 financial year has continued.’’