Arik Air is planning to launch long-haul services later this year as part of an ambitious expansion plan that will make it Nigeria's largest carrier.

Lagos-based Arik has been operating domestic services since last October and will launch its first international services in June. Managing director Mike McTighe says Accra, Dakar and Duala will be Arik's first international destinations and will be served with two newly acquired Boeing 737-700s.

He says privately owned Arik aims to launch its first long-haul route from Lagos to London Heathrow in August. Arik won access to Heathrow in December as part of a new UK-Nigeria bilateral. McTighe says Arik is also seeking to launch flights to Houston before the end of this year and flights to the Middle East and South Africa in 2008. Arik plans to wet-lease an Airbus A330-200 for the daily London service and is seeking to wet-lease an A340-500 to serve Houston two to three times per week.

Meanwhile, Arik has ordered three Boeing 787s, two 777-200ERs and two 777-200LRs. The 787s will be used primarily for London, the 777-200ERs for Houston and the 777-200LRs for a possible Los Angeles service. All four 777s are due for delivery in 2011, with the 787s to follow in 2014. But Arik is interested in accelerating all the deliveries. "Seven years is a long time in the aviation industry. You never know who will get rid of their slots," McTighe says.

The two new 737-700s, acquired from AirTran Airways, are part of a rapid expansion which will see Arik's fleet double from eight to 16 aircraft in this quarter. "The demand here is such that even with 16 aircraft we are still under pressure with customers demanding more services," McTighe says.

Arik started the second quarter with two 737-300s, three Bombardier CRJ900s, two Dash 8 Q300s and a Fokker 50. In April it added a fourth CRJ900 and in May will add three CRJ200s, giving it capacity to expand its domestic network from eight to 12 cities. It is also wet-leasing two more Q300s in May and June as part of a plan to expand services at Port Harcourt's military airport.

Arik is looking at acquiring Q400s, ad­ditional 737-700s and 737-800s. The 737s would be used to expand its regional network to up to 10 African destinations and launch thin European routes such as Brussels, Madrid and Milan. For more on Arik's strategy, read our web chief executive interview with Mike McTighe at

Source: Airline Business