Virgin America Loses More Money, Puts All Efforts on Going Public

After 6 years of big losses, it looks like the time is finally coming for Virgin America to start making money or just go away. The airline decided to announce both fourth quarter 2012 and first quarter 2013 results yesterday, and there were some bright spots. But many of the moves that were announced from a financial perspective make it look like the investors and debt-holders alike are getting antsy and want to make a return soon. The message is loud and clear – the company needs to go public in the next couple of years. CEO David Cush has a very tall task ahead.

Virgin America Go Public or Die Trying

It looks like Virgin America has started to release results before the DOT does it, so that’s why we have both fourth quarter and first quarter results arriving at once. This appears to be part of the airline’s efforts to work toward a public offering by releasing numbers on a more traditional schedule. (This shouldn’t actually matter.)

Let’s start with the bad news. No surprise here; the airline lost money. It lost just shy of $25 million in the fourth quarter ($145 million for the year) along with another $46 million loss in the first quarter of this year. That’s terrible, but the first quarter numbers were less terrible than last year’s first quarter.

And that’s the good news. Virgin America looks like it shifted to a yield-based strategy and that meant the airline did much better on the revenue side. What do I mean by a yield-based strategy? Well, airlines tend to waffle back and forth between two revenue strategies. The yield-based strategy means you charge more for each ticket and you deal with filling fewer seats. The load factor-based strategy is to moderate your fares to fill as many seats as possible. In this case, Virgin America has clearly gone for the former.

The average fare in the first quarter was up a whopping 19 percent versus the year before. Some of that can be explained by the fact that the airline actually cut capacity in the quarter. For an airline that has been in hyper-growth mode, that’s a big change. And the results are very clear. But even on less capacity, Virgin filled fewer seats as a percentage of total. Load factor dropped from 80.6 percent last year to 77.3 percent this year.

In this case, it all turned out very well. Unit revenues were up over 17 percent (though part of that increase was due to a shorter average flight length). And that largely accounted for the decrease in the loss. But there’s a problem. Even with such massive increases in fare, they still lost a ton of money. Net margin was a negative fifteen percent. Oh, and one other problem? Unit costs excluding fuel jumped nearly 8 percent. This is an airline that cut capacity but it increased the number of employees. And the workforce is starting to become more senior. That means they get paid better. By the way, its airplanes are starting to age as well. Maintenance costs were up more than 12 percent in the quarter.

The Push to Go Public
As we head toward the airline’s 7th year of existence, losses continue. What’s the plan to end this? Well, if the airline continues to keep the lid on capacity and the demand for tickets remains stable, then Virgin America might be able to squeak out a meager profit during the good times. In fact, Cush says that 2013 will have a “significant” operating profit in 2013 (whatever that means) and a net profit for the second half of the year. We’ve heard this before, so I’ll believe it when I see it. But I wouldn’t be surprised to see an operating profit this year if demand stays steady. That’s good. But, then what?

The plan here is very clear. Cush wants (or is being pressured) to take this airline public with an initial public offering either at the end of next year or the beginning of 2015.

In the press release, Virgin America notes that it made the following financing changes.

  • $290 million in debt (nearly a third of total debt) will be wiped off the books. Instead, it will be converted “into equity that [the debt-holders] would own once the company went public and the stock hit certain targets.”
  • The interest rate on the remaining debt will drop. This combined with the conversion of some debt means the company’s interest expense in the second half of 2013 will be merely a third of what it was in the second half of 2012.
  • The airline took out yet another loan, this one for $75 million.

Why on Earth would the debtors give up so much… and then loan more money? The only reason I can think of is that they were afraid they were going to get nothing if the airline failed. And they would have had to be fairly certain about failure for them to be willing to do something like this. But that first bullet point is key. The investors have been stuck in Virgin America for a long time now and they want a payday. All efforts are going to be on going public because even more is riding on that happening now.

I just have a hard time understanding how they could actually go public with the results they’re posting. The worst performing airline out there may improve to near-profitability this year, but it will hardly have the track record or even favorable industry comparisons to really entice someone into investing. I mean, would you buy stock?

Things will most definitely look better with this restructured debt, and Virgin America will live to see another day. But from the way Cush is talking, it sounds to me like the airline has maybe a couple years to go public or… die trying. I’m not sure that’s enough time. Good luck.

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34 Comments on "Virgin America Loses More Money, Puts All Efforts on Going Public"

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DC
Guest

Is this to suggest herbal ancillary revenue opportunities on Seattle-Denver flights? The movie got crap reviews, but at least grossed more than it’s budget.

Don
Guest

I think this airline will survive. Year after year they post a loss. Time and again they get a cash infusion. If it was any non-Branson airline it would’ve been dead already. But he’s not going away and neither is Virgin America. He’s gotta have some back door deal with investors…..especially in this economic time.

Carl
Member
I don’t think that this airline will survive. Branson is precluded from infusing any more equity due to foreign ownership limits. In fact, that’s probably why they have debt with the conversion provision upon IPO, so that they can present a reasonable capital structure and live within the ownership limitations…. except that an IPO requires willing investors. This is a company that hasn’t found a profitable niche. They compete with the big 3 legacy carriers plus Alaska on virtually all their routes, but they don’t have a compelling program for frequent travelers who are more apt to pay last minute… Read more »
ontheroadscott
Guest

I think the problem for Virgin America is that it was founded on the belief that there was agap in tthe market between the legacies and the LCCs by offering superior product at a decent price. Thanks to bankruptcies and consolidation, virgin will have a tough time beating the legacies on price and frequency. The legacies are catching up on in flight product as well.

DesertGhost
Guest

One has to wonder if Virgin is in the airline business or the IPO business. I know I wouldn’t touch the shares as the company is performing now.

Nick Barnard
Member

I think they’re in the financial engineering business.. It seems to be what they do best, how else could they still be alive and kicking?

Ryan
Guest

Does anyone think JetBlue would be interested in an acquisition of VA?

Fred
Guest

Nope. Why would they want VA? They’d rather watch while VA goes out of business itself.

David
Guest

The graphic you used is absolutely inappropriate for this story. If I were someone in the airline industry that you contacted for a blog post, I’d decline in a second once I saw this.

Andrew
Guest

You’re kidding, right? The graphic Cranky used was awesome…best part of the post!

iflyjetzzz
Guest
Anyone notice that VX didn’t file any Q4 form 41 data? The numbers were released for all airlines today and all of VX’s lines are blank. http://www.transtats.bts.gov/Fields.asp?Table_ID=279 How the heck did the DOT sign off on an extension of the form 41 data? I suppose we’ll find a bunch of accounting hijinx in those numbers once they’re released. And how did the DOT ever sign off on ‘conditional equity’ that exceeds 25%? I hope other airlines appeal this junk and that it’s ruled against VX. Debt to equity conversion and lowering interest payments – they’re calling it a restructuring. I… Read more »
Fred
Guest

Sort of unrelated, but do you think that Virgin America could or would file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy to buy themselves more time? Their financial situation is very different from the legacies and they aren’t ‘too big to fail’, but I can see them trying this, especially if it can help erase any debt.

Trent880
Guest

I like how yield is way up! But utilizaiton is down 20%. Turns out VX does best when it flies less.

David SF eastbay
Member

Could some of their problems be from trying to have a major schedule from both SFO and LAX from day one? Seems most new airlines start at one location and build off that city, but Virgin America jumped in from both cities heading east right from the beginning.

Should they just have tried to be the Hollywood airline heading east or started in SFO for some north/south connecting traffic and long hauls to the east.

Didn’t putting money to try and build up LAX and SFO at the same time take a toll on the wallet?

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Bobsmith
Guest

Cranky,

Do you think it is a matter of just poor timing for Virgin and its business model? Meaning, Midwest Express did pretty well for a number of years , but the reality of the airline industry (consolidation, fuel prices, etc) made its business model unsustainable and then the Airtran bid, Republic acquisition, etc.. In your opinion, is that what is going on with Virgin- that premium, higher end airline service model can no longer pencil out financially?

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