Coronavirus: Branson sells stake in Galactic space business to keep Virgin afloat

Sir Richard Branson has been forced to sell a stake in Virgin Galactic. Photo: Getty
Sir Richard Branson has been forced to sell a stake in Virgin Galactic. Photo: Getty

Sir Richard Branson has sold off another chunk of Virgin Galactic in order to raise finance for his other businesses.

According to the Financial Times, Virgin Group has sold £366m ($445.3m) shares in the New York listed space travel company and given up majority control.

Virgin now has 40% of the business. Billionaire Branson flagged the stake sale two weeks ago.

The sale comes as other parts of Branson’s business have continued to struggle, in particular Virgin Atlantic which has been grounded due to the pandemic.

READ MORE: Devastation for airlines as UK confirms 14-day quarantine post-travel

Virgin Group said it would use the stake sale proceeds “to support its portfolio of global leisure, holiday and travel businesses that have been affected by the unprecedented impact of COVID-19.” 

Branson had initially asked the government for a loan in order to keep the Virgin Atlantic afloat and even offered to put his luxury Caribbean retreat Necker Island up as security against the loan.

But Chancellor Rishi Sunak has held firm ever since he wrote to airlines and airports in March saying the taxpayer would only step in “as a last resort.”

A rescue package for the airline would have been politically toxic given its super-wealthy backer has not paid personal tax in the UK for 14 years after moving to the British Virgin Islands – a well-known tax haven.

As a result Virgin Atlantic has been left fighting for survival after the coronavirus pandemic caused it to cancel thousands of flights.

READ MORE: Virgin Atlantic delays resuming flights over 14-day quarantine plans

It has already cut 3,150 jobs and announced it will end its presence at Gatwick Airport, while its sister airline Virgin Australia has gone bust.

Branson’s Virgin Group empire owns stakes in a slew of companies, from Virgin Wines and Virgin Money to social media giants such as Twitter and Pinterest. 

Virgin Galactic was founded by Branson in 2004 and had initially hoped to launch tourist flights into space by 2009.

But the mission has been beset by a series of delays, not least the death of copilot Michael Alsbury during a disastrous test flight of the VSS Enterprise craft in 2014.