Virgin Nigeria to raise capacity after takeover: chief executive

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Virgin Nigeria's new chief executive is to prioritise increasing the airline's capacity, following the acquisition of a controlling stake by Nicon Group.

Kinfe Kahssaye has been appointed to the top post, having previously serviced as chief operating officer and chief commercial officer since joining from Ethiopian Airlines last October.

Insurance company Nicon has provided a capital injection to the carrier - which is still referring to itself under the Virgin name, despite earlier intentions to rebrand - and Kahssaye says the airline is putting a turnaround strategy in place.

"We're currently working on leasing additional capacity," he tells ATI. The airline has seven aircraft, comprising five Boeing 737s and two Embraer 190s.

Kahssaye says that the carrier is in the process of leasing another three or four 737s - all older variants - which will bring its fleet to around 11 aircraft in three months' time.

But he adds that the carrier intends to modernise by leasing "a number" of modern-variant Boeing 737s "in the near future". He says the airline plans to introduce them in the first half of 2011.

Virgin Nigeria will use the capacity to increase frequency on its current network but also wants to open up to 10 new destinations this year: six regional and four domestic.

Kahssaye says the airline is "well-founded" with skilled employees. "Internally, it's a very good company," he says. "We'll focus on building a business model to give competitive services at low cost.

"There's a huge market in the region, a big regional market that's not particularly well-served. Opportunities are there to grow."

The airline will concentrate on local activity for the next three years but could look to restart long-haul services at a later date.

Virgin Nigeria was founded with Virgin Atlantic as a 49% shareholder, but the UK airline has wanted to extract itself from the Nigerian company.

Kahssaye says Nicon Group has taken a majority share - with Nicon manager Jimoh Ibrahim becoming chairman of the airline - but declines to give the precise size of the stake or indicate the quantity of funding received.

Virgin Nigeria has yet to clarify the situation with its brand. It unveiled a new identity, Nigerian Eagle, last year but the carrier is still linking itself with the Virgin name.