Singapore Airlines has emerged as the single biggest investor in Virgin Australia, snapping up $122 million in shares in the airline from Richard Branson's Virgin Group.
The deal, which needs to be approved by shareholders, will give Singapore Airlines 19.9 per cent of Virgin Australia, falling just short of the threshold where it is required to launch a takeover. Virgin's international airlines investors are now jostling for position on its share registry.
Air New Zealand has about 19 per cent of Virgin, Etihad is at 8 per cent, and if the deal is approved Virgin Group will be on 13 per cent. Before the off-market deal with Branson, Singapore held a 10 per cent stake in Virgin.
A spokeswoman for Virgin Australia declined to comment on the sale, but sees the move as a "further demonstration of confidence in our strategy".
The acquisition comes a day after Virgin received competition regulator approval to buy a controlling stake in Tiger Australia from Singapore Airlines' budget associate, Tiger Airways Holdings Ltd.
Singapore Airlines, which is majority owned by the Singapore government, paid 48¢ a share in Virgin Australia. Virgin shares on Wednesday traded 0.5¢ higher at 46¢.
Singapore Airlines recently sold a 49 per cent stake in Virgin Atlantic to Delta Airlines because synergies it hoped for had not materialised, a Singapore Airlines spokeswoman said. She added the airline had no plans "at this point" to increase its stake in Virgin Australia beyond 19.9 per cent.
"Our partnership with Virgin Australia has been going from strength to strength, offering a wide range of consumer benefits," Singapore Airlines chief executive, Goh Choon Phong, said.
"Increasing our stake in Virgin Australia is another example of Singapore Airlines' deep commitment to the important Australian market.
"It also demonstrates our support for the ongoing transformation of Virgin Australia, which has created a more competitive aviation market in Australia."
A spokeswoman for Air New Zealand said Singapore Airlines' increased investment was not unexpected.
"Clearly Singapore Airlines sees the value that we see in Virgin Australia. We are complementary shareholders with no direct overlap in the markets we fly," the spokeswoman said.
Analysts said the deal moved more of the voting power into the hands of the "strategic operating partners".
Macquarie Equities was upbeat about the acquisition.
"At this point there is no talk of a takeover from any of the parties. However, the interest from the partners does confirm the strength of Virgin Australia's virtual international network going forward, as it attempts to compete effectively with Qantas' new reach given the Emirates deal," Macquarie said in a note to clients.
The transaction has provided a windfall to Mr Branson. Virgin Group reportedly spent $US30 million setting up Virgin Australia in 1999.
In 14 years, and thanks to Ansett's collapse, it has grown to be worth $US251 million.
Vying for attention
19.9% - SINGAPORE AIRLINES
19% - AIR NEW ZEALAND
13% - VIRGIN
8% - ETIHAD AIRWAYS
40% - OTHER