Virgin Nigeria takes to the air

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In a remarkably short time, Virgin Nigeria has gone from being a paper airline to a fully fledged flag carrier operating domestic and international routes. “What we have achieved is truly extraordinary in the African context,” says the carrier’s chief executive Simon Harford (pictured).

The Virgin Group began investigating the possibility of becoming involved in a Nigerian carrier in May 2004. It already had a strong interest in the country, with Virgin Atlantic serving Lagos since 2001. And it was only foreign carriers that were carrying the bulk of Nigeria’s air travellers since the collapse of Nigeria Airways in early 2003.

The government had been searching for a technical partner to establish a successor to Nigeria Airways for some time, and held talks with South African Airways in addition to Virgin about the venture. In September 2004 it selected the British firm as its partner and strategic investor. Virgin has a 49% stake in the new carrier, with Nigerian investors holding a controlling 51%.

simon_herford_redThe aim is to establish a carrier with the service attributes of Virgin Atlantic, able to compete with the likes of Emirates, Ethiopian Airways or British Airways. At the launch of its first flight in June, Harford said: “Nigeria has waited a long time for a new airline like this, and we are excited and honoured that today, Virgin Nigeria launches its flights as a world-class airline based in Nigeria.”That first service, with an Airbus A340-300 from Lagos to London Heathrow, was soon followed by A320 services to Accra in Ghana and a domestic flight to Port Harcourt. To date the London route is averaging 50% load factors. Virgin Nigeria is rapidly building up its workforce, with over 300 on board so far.

The airline will take delivery of its first Boeing 737-300 later this year, with the aim of operating seven 737s and four A340s by the end of 2006. “By the end of next year we'll have 11 aircraft and over 15 routes,” said chief commercial officer Graham Keddie speaking to Routes Daily News, which was published by Airline Business during the recent Routes event in Copenhagen. “The A320s will stay until the middle of next year so we can grow quickly and they will only be replaced by the later 737s,” said Keddie.

This year the carrier plans to launch routes to Johannesburg and the Cameroon city of Douala. The target is to fly to the USA next year as well, although there is some resistance with authorities there refusing to recognise the airline as Nigerian-owned.

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Virgin Nigeria is confident this hurdle can be overcome. But there are other, tough hurdles to negotiate, including the challenge of security and capacity at the airline’s main base at Lagos International Airport. However, a taskforce put together by the government, which includes representatives from airlines, will identify the main causes for concern and ways to deal with them.

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