Richard Branson is backing out of airlines just as Warren Buffett places big bets on the industry

Fun while it lasted.
Fun while it lasted.
Image: EPA/John G. Mabanglo
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Two of the world’s most famous billionaires have conflicting ideas about where investors should put their money.

Richard Branson is giving up control of Virgin Atlantic, by selling a 31% stake in the airline he founded in 1984. He will stay on as chairman, and retain a 20% stake in the group, but the sale of a stake to Air France-KLM leaves Delta, with a 49% stake, as the airline’s largest shareholder. Last year, Branson sold Virgin America to Alaska Airlines.

Meanwhile, legendary investor Warren Buffett thinks it’s a great time to invest in aviation. The notoriously loss-making industry “got a bad century out of the way,” he said earlier this year, after securities filings revealed that his Berkshire Hathaway company had amassed holdings in Delta, American Airlines, United, and Southwest. This has proved shrewd—so far—with airline stocks outperforming the broader market over the past year (despite a recent tumble).

Branson’s stake sale highlights another thing happening in the airline industry: consolidation. Over the past decade, the number of US carriers has shrunk from 18 to 10. Out of those airlines, only four account for 80% of domestic capacity.