Air NZ's Virgin win, Branson grin

Air New Zealand has further tightened its grip on Virgin Australia by gaining permission to lift its stake to 25%.

Of the four major shareholders that now account for just under 70% of Virgin Australia's (VAH) listed equity, only one appears to not have designs on furthering his interest.

That is the founder, Sir Richard Branson, who to the general public at least, successfully has maintained the facade as being the driving force behind the airline while actively seeking to reduce his 12.47% holding.

Confirmation this morning that Air New Zealand had received approval from the Australian Treasurer to lift its stake to 25% in the Australian carrier will only accelerate Etihad's ambitions to equal Singapore Airlines' 19.9% stake

Virgin, which recently announced a shock earnings tumble following a year of restructuring and acquisitions, is in the happy position of being one of the most keenly sought after airline partners in the world.

But tensions remain between the three main shareholders, each of which have competing interests, with the rivalry particularly fierce between Singapore Airlines and Etihad, which recently lifted its stake to 13.4%, eclipsing Branson as the third largest shareholder.

Both groups eye Australia as a lucrative global and regional market and a vital strategic link to bulk their own destinations as regional hubs.

Singapore first attempted to gain a foothold in Australia by buying News Corp's half stake in Ansett but was thwarted by Air New Zealand. It later lobbied to launch trans-Tasman and trans-Pacific services but was outmanoeuvred by Qantas at a political level (see Qantas's take-off plans).

Air New Zealand now may be the biggest shareholder but Singapore has a joint venture with Virgin Australia in Tiger, the loss making budget carrier now majority owned and operated by Virgin.

The competing strategic interests and turbulent history among the key shareholders could make for some tense moments around the boardroom.

It is likely Sir Richard Branson will be the only one able to maintain the cheesy grin. He funded Brett Godfrey with $11 million in seed capital to start the domestic airline a decade ago and then pocketed a fortune when Patrick Corp bought in. Now he has three global heavyweights looking to lift their stake in a company with precious few free floating shares.

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