Delta's Interest in Virgin Turns Off Investors

ATLANTA ( TheStreet) -- It's good to have as much access as possible to London's Heathrow Airport, isn't it?

Investors aren't so sure, apparently. News of Delta's ( DAL) interest in ownership in Virgin Atlantic Airways, widely reported over the weekend, was followed by a 4% decline in Delta's share price on Monday. The shares closed Friday at $10, closed Monday at $9.62 and then recovered slightly to close Wednesday at $9.71.

Virgin hold 44 daily long-haul slot pairs at Heathrow, as well as 12 daily short-haul slot pairs. Delta could potentially gain access to the long-haul slots if it is successful in talks with Singapore Air, which holds 49% of Virgin. Still, in a note issued Tuesday, JP Morgan analyst Jamie Baker wrote: "We broadly share the market's concern regarding a potential investment in Virgin Atlantic by Delta." He said Virgin's financial results "are uninspiring and the business seems geared more towards brand than profit."

Delta shareholders worry that the carrier's interest "represented a departure from its current, capitally-prudent deleveraging strategy -- a potentially reckless reversion to the more swashbuckling airline days of yore," Baker wrote. "Most stakeholders broadly assume (as do we) that dividends, share buybacks or some sort of further debt reduction (pension funding, perhaps?) should continue to occupy the top of management's capital allocation wish list once the company achieves its $10 billion net debt target next year."

At the same time, Baker said, "Delta's limited Heathrow access is a corporate disadvantage (and) Singapore appears eager to sell." He valued Virgin's long-haul slots at between $660 million and $880 million and said he would look favorably on an investment up to $350 million in Singapore. "Delta has an admirable track record for capital prudence," based on its recent strategies of eschewing new aircraft purchases, acquiring a refinery and making select investments in Latin American carriers, he said. He ranks Delta shares overweight.

In general, Wall Street analysts have looked favorably on Delta's talks with Virgin. Imperial Capital analyst Bob McAdoo said Delta has just 28 weekly takeoffs and landings at Heathrow, while United has 210 and American has 200. More Delta access to Heathrow would challenge American's ( AAMRQ.PK) dominance of the New York-Heathrow market, McAdoo wrote in a note, saying "Delta already has a leading presence in the NYC market and additional competition to London would be a challenge for American on this marquee route."

If Delta's talks with Singapore are part of a wider plan that would include SkyTeam partner Air France/KLM acquiring Richard Branson's 51% stake in the airline he founded, then "the SkyTeam alliance would potentially secure a significant hold in three of the busiest European Airports (London, Paris and Amsterdam), (and be) able to better coordinate capacity to maximize profitability."

McAdoo has a $19 price target on Delta.

Maxim Group analyst Ray Neidl also backed a deal, saying that "these slots are desirable as they provide access to the profitable corporate traffic that flies into Heathrow." A deal would put Delta on an even footing with American and United ( UAL)" at Heathrow, Neidl said. He has a $13 price target on Delta.

-- Written by Ted Reed in Charlotte, N.C.

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