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How Nigeria lost 49% Virgin Group stake

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By Timothy Akintola

Despite the rebranding , Nigeria Air was grounded over safety concerns.

In 2003 when Nigeria airways halted its operations, the country urgently needed a new Airline. A year later, a group of Investors collaborated with the Virgin Group, in a bid to establish Virgin Nigeria. With its base in Murtala Muhammad International Airport, Lagos, its frequent flyer program was regarded as Eagleflier. On commencement of its operations in 2005, its inaugural flight conveyed passengers from its Lagos hub to an important Virgin Atlantic base in London Heathrow.

18 years after this pact with the Nigerian Government to launch the airline for the country, the company was to be 49 percent owned by Virgin Atlantic and 51 percent by the Nigerian investors. However, despite the incessant talks by naysayers about the efficiency and future of the airline, Virgin Nigeria went on to be immensely successful. In its first two years, the airline was recorded to have flown over a million passengers and carrying over four thousand tons of cargo. The airline also recorded numerous awards, including the ASATA’s African Airline of the Year nomination.

Despite the protest, Nigeria moved Virgin’s operations without its consent.

At the airline’s peak, it was recorded to be running about 14 aircraft which ranged from the small Fokker 50 to the Boeing 767-300ER and Airbus A340-300. The airline was on the verge of expanding its operations and had even commenced plans for establishing a new base in Abuja. However, this plan went downhill. The situation began to deteriorate in 2008, after the Nigerian government asked the company to move its domestic operations to the international terminal in Lagos, Terminal 2.

Regardless of the company’s displeasure, its operations were moved without its consent, which led Virgin airline to question its association with the country. Immediately, Virgin started to retract from the airline and by 2009, it announced that it would halt its operations to London and Johannesburg. At that time, the airline noted that the decision to halt their services was to ensure the review of its operations, including their product offerings in these routes. In the statement, the group noted that its focus was on continuing to expand its profitable regional and domestic operations.

Despite expansion promises, Virgin only retained its 49%.

On assuring its loyal customer in Nigeria, Virgin said that upon finalization of the long-haul product review, operations to the long-haul routes would be continued. Despite this promise, this long-haul route was never reimplemented. Months after this disclosed, the company took its brand off the Nigerian airline and was since regarded as the Eagle Airline which would focus on the regional and domestic operations.

Though the company promised to expand its services through USA and Europe in the nearest future, Virgin only retained its 49 percent stake in the airline which did not even last long. As at June 2010, Jimoh Ibrahim, the new Chairman of the airline bought a controlling stake in the company and announced its intention to rebrand and this time, regarded as Air Nigeria Development Limited, branded as Air Nigeria. Two years later in 2010 however, it was grounded by regulators over concerns of safety.

Despite efforts, Nigeria’s aviation industry remains underdeveloped.

Later on, reports indicated that all the staff had been fired for disloyalty. Due to this, the airline had to suspend all its operational services, whether locally, regionally or internationally. Months after, the airline’s AOC expired, killing every hope for a resurgence. September 10,2012 is remembered as the period when the Nigeria Air had been disbanded, the Nigerian government once talked about relaunching the airline as a state-owned entity, but nothing significant has changed and in spite of the immense efforts of airlines like Air Peace, Nigeria’s aviation industry still remains underdeveloped.


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