There is going to be a big cheer going up shortly for frequent Delta Air Lines customers to Nigeria. The US major is upgrading the route from a Boeing 767-300 to a 777-200ER. And not before time some might say, and have been saying on the Airline Business blog in recent days.
Delta has been on the receiving end of plenty of criticism about the quality of its service on this route. After reading this flurry of activity I thought it was high time to interview the carrier and find out what it thinks about its Nigerian operations.
The man is the frame is Delta's commercial manager west and east Africa Bobby Bryan. He's been responsible for the airline's operation in Nigeria for 18 months and is an experienced hand in the region having before that spent two-and-a-half years with Air France-KLM in the country.
Bryan is delighted that from 1 July, the carrier is putting 777s on the route: "These 777s are brand new with AVOD (audio video on demand) throughout the cabin and all-leather seating - it is very much a state-of-the-art aircraft."
The 777s will offer 50 business class seats and 218 seats in economy, compared to 36 and 181 respectively for the 767.
Delta has come in for a lot of stick about its service quality on the 767s and in particular about the quality of its in-flight entertainment product. "We don't think a lot of it is accurate," says Bryan, but he is open about another issue - baggage.
Bags, bags, bags
"Most of the customer service issues focus on baggage. The average Nigeria passenger travels with five bags - this was something we had not anticipated," says Bryan.
Delta launched the Atlanta-Lagos route (its first as part of the African element of its international expansion) in December 2007. "In the early days we were leaving bags behind and we did run some extra segments with 777s to bring bags over," says Bryan.
To get over this problem, Delta imposed an embargo on excess baggage (giving only the standard international bag allowances), which avoided bags behind left behind but did irritate those Nigerian traders who liked to move goods on this route.
"The 777 will enable us to go into different markets in Nigeria," says Bryan. "Those traders who want to go to the US to buy consumer goods [can now use the Delta 777 flight]. Before we were not able to carry their bags. Now we will be able to join in that market, and it is not insignificant."
In addition, Delta has worked with the Nigerian authorities to change the outbound flight from Lagos to a nighttime departure. "This means we will have connecting opportunities we didn't have before to destinations in the oil producing areas in the south [of Nigeria]. Previously people had to come the night before and then take the morning flight."
From 10 June, Delta will begin its second route to Nigeria. The service between New York's JF Kennedy Airport and Nigerian capital Abuja will tap a different market to that of Lagos. "It is not an oil and traders market it is very much government, NGOs and a students market. There has never been a direct service from Abuja to the US," says Bryan.
Delta will use an ex-Song (Delta's former low-fare brand) 757-200 with 16 business and 155 economy seats on the route. "This is a premium aircraft to open up a new route," says Bryan. The 757s feature AVOD across the cabins and are refurbished with leather seats.
Delta is pleased with its Nigerian routes, which averages loads of over 80%. "It is a premium market not only up front but also in the back," says Bryan.
After the UK, the USA is the next biggest market in terms of traffic for Nigeria. Until Delta's arrival, the direct market had been underserved. "Our African expansion has gone very well - cities in this region are strong performers and we are serving markets that were crying out for additional service to North America," says Bryan.
"Nigeria is a country with incredible potential. Over the medium-term we expect to develop our activities there," says Bryan.
But there is more competition coming, with local carrier Arik Air planning to begin service from Lagos to New York in the third quarter.
Bryan claims Arik's arrival is no bad thing. "Competition develops the market and we would welcome Nigerian carriers to North America. The market is large enough to handle several carriers. We see them as co-developers of the market."
Some of the comment about Delta's operations centred on whether it dedicated aircraft to this route or not. According to Bryan: "Very few airlines allocate a specific aircraft to a specific route."
By the end of June Delta will serve nine cities in seven countries in Africa.