Branson's knee-in-the-groin showdown with BA's Walsh on hold

Penalty for five-year-old bet unlikely to be paid as both sides claim they won wager over Virgin Atlantic ownership

The most anticipated knee in the groin in modern business history appears to have been dodged after Sir Richard Branson and Willie Walsh both claimed to have won a bet placed five years ago over Virgin Atlantic’s future.

Disappointingly for aviation industry observers, a rendezvous to settle a spat that developed across two continents in 2012 appears to be off.

At the time, Walsh – the chief executive of British Airways’ parent company, International Airlines Group – made comments suggesting that the Virgin Atlantic brand could disappear after US company Delta bought a 49% stake.

Branson proposed a £1m bet that Virgin would still exist in five years. Walsh said he would accept on the basis he was suggesting Branson would no longer be in control of the airline – and that the stake be modified to a knee in the groin, arguing that £1m would not be a painful loss for the Virgin boss.

While Branson said he would accept the new stakes, it is not clear that he took the bet on Walsh’s terms. On Monday, he declared on his blog that the five years was up and he was the winner. He said: “Although people might be amused to see me give Willie a low blow, I ideally have no wish to do so.

“So to settle this matter once and for all, and in the spirit of Christmas, I suggest he donates £1m to Virgin Atlantic’s team.”

Branson said he would still be prepared to knee Walsh in the groin if the money was not forthcoming.

However, Walsh’s view is that he is the winner, after Branson sold his controlling stake in Virgin Atlantic to Air France-KLM in July this year, a deal that reduces his share in the airline from 51% to 20%.

Willie Walsh: ‘Branson no longer owns or controls Virgin Atlantic … he lost the bet.’
Willie Walsh: ‘Branson no longer owns or controls Virgin Atlantic … he lost the bet.’ Photograph: Clodagh Kilcoyne / Reuters/Reuters

Walsh said: “When Richard Branson sold out to Delta five years ago, he said he would never give up control. As everyone knows, he no longer owns or controls the business, a reality confirmed by the decision to sell more of his shares to Air France. He’s lost the bet.”

Questioned on whether Walsh would be demanding satisfaction, an IAG spokeswoman declined to comment.

A Virgin spokesperson accused Walsh of “trying to wriggle out”, and said Branson remained technically the winner as the Air France-KLM deal would not complete until next year: “As of today, five years on, we still own and control 51% of Virgin Atlantic, appoint the majority of directors and the chairman of the board.”

The wager, which came after decades of bad blood between Virgin and British Airways, originated when Walsh told reporters on a flight to South Korea in December 2012 that the Delta deal could spell the end of the Virgin brand. Branson then wrote: ”Will BA never learn? Let’s see how much they believe this. Let them put their money where their mouth is … I will pay £1m to their staff if Virgin Atlantic disappears within, say, five years. If not, BA pays our staff £1m.”

Walsh, in Seoul, responded: “If he wants to say he will be owning it in five years’ time in its current form, then that would be an interesting bet to accept.”

Branson replied on his blog that he would be happy to accept.

In the absence of binding arbitration on the matter, it appears both men may emerge with manhood, if not dignity, intact. Branson offered Walsh lunch “once this is over”, a prospect that looks as remote as that knee in the groin.


Gwyn Topham Transport correspondent

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
British Airways rivalry with Virgin resumes over bmi airline sale
Bmi owner Lufthansa confirms talks with Virgin Atlantic as well as BA parent, IAG, over sale of airline and slots at Heathrow

Dan Milmo, Industrial editor

12, Dec, 2011 @4:15 PM

Article image
Covid-19 crisis opens doors to a leaner but meaner British Airways
Shunning state bailouts hurts carrier’s UK rivals and gives it excuse to cull jobs and contracts

Gwyn Topham Transport correspondent

01, May, 2020 @4:34 PM

Article image
Willie Walsh will lose his bet that Virgin brand will be history
Given that Richard Branson is keeping his 51% stake in the deal with Delta, five more years of the name doesn't seem a stretch

Nils Pratley

12, Dec, 2012 @12:49 AM

Article image
Richard Branson and BA chief's 'knee in the groin' bet
Virgin boss suggests wager on whether he will be in charge of airline in five years – but Willie Walsh changes the stake

Gwyn Topham, transport correspondent, in Seoul

11, Dec, 2012 @1:14 AM

Article image
Willie Walsh: the pilot who landed the BA top job
Combative and controversial figure who steered British Airways into a global aviation powerhouse

Gwyn Topham Transport correspondent

09, Jan, 2020 @2:11 PM

Article image
IT meltdown has cost British Airways £80m so far, says Willie Walsh
Boss of parent company IAG gives shareholders at AGM initial bill of May bank holiday debacle

Gwyn Topham Transport correspondent

15, Jun, 2017 @12:32 PM

Article image
Willie Walsh to stand down as boss of British Airways owner
International Airlines Group says CEO will be succeeded by Iberia chief Luis Gallego

Julia Kollewe and Gwyn Topham

09, Jan, 2020 @8:45 AM

Article image
Virgin Atlantic expands into Scotland as Branson looks to give up control
Airline's move into short-haul industry questioned by IAG boss Willie Walsh, while Virgin chief in talks to sell part of 51% stake

Gwyn Topham, transport correspondent

10, Dec, 2012 @12:02 AM

Article image
Willie Walsh pay deal rises 30% at IAG
Boss of British Airways’ parent company paid £6.4m last year, including bonuses and benefits, after the turnaround at troubled Iberia

Gwyn Topham Transport correspondent

05, Mar, 2015 @11:24 AM

Article image
Willie Walsh rules out Aer Lingus bid
Boss of British Airways and Iberia confirms interest in adding BMI and Portugal's TAP to his International Airlines Group

Lisa O'Carroll

16, Sep, 2011 @12:57 PM