LONDON — Delta Air Lines agreed to buy a 49 percent stake in Richard Branson's Virgin Atlantic Airways for $360 million to boost its share of the lucrative trans-Atlantic travel market.
The carriers will begin a joint venture on 31 daily round-trip flights between North America and Britain as they use Virgin Atlantic's base at London's Heathrow airport, Europe's busiest, according to a statement Tuesday. The Virgin Atlantic stake has been held by Singapore Airlines Ltd. since 1999.
The deal positions Atlanta-based Delta and Virgin Atlantic to grab a bigger slice of flights across the North Atlantic, the world's richest lode of premium passengers. British Airways and AMR Corp.'s American Airlines, the leaders of the Oneworld alliance, now control more than half of that service.
"It gives Delta the bulk between New York and Heathrow to compete effectively for the high-yielding business traveler," said Jeff Straebler, an analyst at John Hancock Financial Services in Boston. "Delta is filling a gap in its route network that will pay off for years to come."
The U.S. carrier's 10 daily nonstop flights to Britain would be added to the 21 that Crawley, England-based Virgin Atlantic plans to operate under its summer 2013 schedule.
While the Virgin Atlantic brand will remain and founder Branson will retain control, the deal marks the end of a go-it- alone strategy for the airline the 62-year-old British billionaire established almost three decades ago.
Delta and Virgin Atlantic said they will seek antitrust immunity from regulators, letting them coordinate schedules and pricing and share costs and revenue from joint-venture flights regardless of whose plane operates the route.
They also will offer reciprocal frequent-flier benefits and allow elite-level loyalty-program members to use each other's airport lounges.