Virgin Atlantic Airways in July launched services from London Heathrow to Lagos, marking the first competition on the route for over four years.

The services, which follow a five-year lobbying effort to enter the market, will initially consist of four weekly Boeing 747-200 flights. Virgin is now pushing the Nigerian Government to grant it rights for a daily service.

The new operation will bring competition to the busy route for the first time since May 1997, when Nigeria Airways was banned from landing in London for reasons relating to noise and safety. After a diplomatic tussle between the two countries, British Airways emerged in mid-1998 to offer, effectively, the route's only service. BA, which flies the route daily with a 747-400 from Gatwick, also offers 767-300 services three times a week to Abuja, the Nigerian capital.

While only BA aircraft had plied the route, a joint venture arrangement allowed the Nigerian flag carrier access to 130 seats on each flight, 80 of them free. The agreement was terminated earlier this year, allowing BA complete control of its inventory in the market, considered among its most profitable.

The destination represents another step in Virgin's strategy over recent years to launch more business-oriented services, such as to Tokyo, Shanghai and Hong Kong. For years it was thought of as principally a holiday-maker's airline, serving Florida and the Caribbean.

Virgin is optimistic the flight will be a financial success, but believes it will need rights to a daily service to maximise its value. While in Abuja on the inaugural flight, company chairman Sir Richard Branson lobbied both Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo and transport minister Kema Chikwe for the three additional frequencies. Asked about the likelihood that daily rights being granted, Chikwe said: "It's only when you're enjoying your sleep that you snore." Apparently she was indicating that Virgin had done well to be awarded the original four frequencies.

She did add, however, that the government would re-examine the case in a few months. It is thought that the fate of Nigeria Airways - which insiders believe has arranged to damp-lease a 747 from Air Djibouti to join in the suddenly competitive London-Lagos fray - will determine whether Virgin gets its desired frequency upgrade.

Source: Airline Business