Virgin America was just sold for $US2.6 billion, and it's a smarter deal than it appears

Seattle-based Alaska Airlines announced on Monday that it will acquire Virgin America for $2.6 billion after a short bidding war with JetBlue.

Including Virgin’s debt and aircraft leasing obligations, the value of the deal could reach $4 billion.

Although, Virgin America is widely regarded by consumer ratings agencies as the best airline in North America, Alaska paid nearly twice what the airline last traded at.

“$57 per share seems like a steep price for Virgin America, when it had been trading at between $26 and $37 over the last year,” Warwick Business School professor of business strategy Loizos Heracleous told Business Insider.

“The bidding war for Virgin America has raised the price to levels that will make it challenging for Alaska Air to garner benefits that can justify this price, at least in the short-term.”

The airline’s $2.6 billion price tag is roughly 16 times the airline’s 2015 earnings, Airways News senior business analyst Vinay Bhaskara told Business Insider.

“Even with cratering fuel prices and the airline earning cycle at its peak, Virgin America hasn’t been able to be very profitable,” Bhaskara said.

So what exactly did Alaska Airlines buy?

Although Virgin America operates a fleet of 60 Airbus A320-family jets, the airline owns only five of them with rest leased from various companies around the world.

As a result, Virgin America’s most valuable assets are actually its terminal space at San Francisco International Airport and Los Angeles International Airport along with landing rights at Love Field in Dallas, LaGuardia in New York and Reagan National in DC, Bhaskara said.

Richard branson virgin americaHandout/Getty ImagesVirgin Group founder Sir Richard Branson.

And then there’s the cache of the Virgin brand which brings intangible value to the airline.

At first glance, forking out $4 billion for some terminal space, landing rights and a few jets makes little sense, but a deeper dive shows that Alaska’s move, although risky, may be a smart buy for three key reasons.

First, the acquisition of the San Francisco-based airline keeps Virgin America and its sizeable West Coast presence out of JetBlue’s control. New York-based JetBlue has a strong east-coast and transcontinental business, but it still lags behind Alaska, Virgin America and Southwest in its ability to serve the Western US.

Acquiring Virgin would have given JetBlue instant scale on the west coast as well as bolster its already formidable transcontinental business.

Virgin American Airbus A320 LAXFlickr/InSapphoWeTrustVirgin America Airbus A320 at LAX.

Second, Alaska’s acquisition of Virgin America makes it an instant powerhouse airline that’s a viable competitor to juggernaut Southwest, Bhaskara told Business Insider.

Alaska, the seventh largest airline in the US, now has additional resources to scale up operations in key markets around the country such as Dallas and New York.

Virgin America’s large presence in San Francisco and Los Angeles also allows Alaska to fortify its position in those two brutally competitive markets.

Third, Alaska Airlines is a major brand and big time player in the western United States. But it remains relatively unknown to most travellers on the East Coast and abroad. The acquisition of an airline tied to a world-renowned brand allows Alaska to make a major splash outside of its traditional market.

Whether the Virgin America acquisition pays offs for Alaska remains to be seen, but there’s notdoubt the deal will greatly affect the landscape of the commercial air travel on the west coast.

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