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Sun 9 Nov 2014 11:45 AM

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Around 24 wealthy passengers demand refunds after Virgin Galactic fatal crash

Abu Dhabi-backed space tourism firm founded by Richard Branson looks set to lose $3m in lost sales as customers demand refunds

Around 24 wealthy passengers demand refunds after Virgin Galactic fatal crash
Debris from Virgin Galactic SpaceShip 2 sits in a desert field November 2, 2014 north of Mojave, California on The Virgin Galactic SpaceShip 2 crashed on October 31, 2014 during a test flight, killing one pilot and seriously injuring another. (Getty Images)

Around two dozen wealthy passengers who had paid to be among the inaugural passengers on Virgin Galactic’s trip into space have reportedly demanded refunds after a pilot died in a test flight late last month.

At around $250,000 per ticket, the company, in which Abu Dhabi government investment firm Aabar Investments owns a 37.8 percent stake, stands to lose around $3 million in lost sales, according to a report by The Telegraph newspaper.

Last week, the UK’s Princess Beatrice, who sixth in line to the British throne and a friend of Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson, was one of the most high profile passengers to have decided to pull out.

“Beatrice was excited by the idea of space tourism, but there is no way she will be going on one of the flights, if they are ever allowed to take place,” the source told the Daily Mail.

Other celebrities who also have paid to be on one of the first flights, including Justin Bieber, Ashton Kutcher and Leonardo DiCaprio, are yet to comment on the fatal accident.

However, Dubai-based entrepreneur Ashish J Thakkar, the founder of Mara Group, one of Africa’s largest companies estimated to be worth more than $1 billion, told Arabian Business he still intended to be on board SpaceShipTwo during one of its first flights, scheduled for next year.

"What happened in Mojave was a real tragedy and my heart goes out to the families of the two test pilots,” Thakkar, who hails from Uganda and will represent Africa on the space trip, said.

"I have full confidence in Virgin Galactic and their associates and firmly stand by them. This is a huge feat and challenges do and will come about."

Pilot Michael Alsbury, 39, died and a second pilot, Peter Siebold, 43, remains in hospital after the space plane crashed over the Mojave Desert, California, during a test flight on in late October.

US crash investigators are reportedly looking into whether pilot error was a factor in the accident. The Guardian reported that the investigation also would scrutinise the design of the space plane and look at training issues, pressures to continue testing and the safety culture at Virgin Galactic.

Founder Richard Branson has remained defiant that he and his son Sam will travel on the spaceship’s maiden voyage next year.

Abu Dhabi’s Aabar Investments said it wait for results of the probe into the fatal crash before deciding on its commitment to the project, a source with knowledge of the matter told Reuters on Thursday.

"As an investor, Aabar is concerned of course. It is a challenge - nothing can be decided until investigations are over," the source said, declining to be named because of the sensitivity of the subject.

"For now, it is a wait-and-watch situation."

Asked if Aabar was still committed to Virgin Galactic, the source said only: "There is time to make an assessment of the future strategy."

An Aabar spokesman contacted by Reuters declined to comment, saying all queries should be directed to Virgin Galactic, part of Sir Richard Branson's Virgin Group. By email, Virgin Galactic said questions about Aabar's intentions should be addressed to the Abu Dhabi fund.

Aabar bought a 31.8 percent stake in Virgin Galactic in 2010 and raised that to 37.8 percent in 2011, according to Aabar's website. United Arab Emirates media have reported the investment totalled nearly $400 million, and have quoted Branson as saying he aimed eventually to open a spaceport in Abu Dhabi.

Virgin Galactic's chief executive George Whitesides said his company hoped to complete construction of a second SpaceShipTwo in mid-2015 and begin test flights before the end of the year.

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