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TBT (Throwback Thursday) in Aviation History: Virgin Nigeria/Air Nigeria
Virgin Nigeria was formed in 2004 after the Nigerian flag carrier Nigeria Airways went bankrupt in 2003. The airline was formed with Nigerian private investors and Virgin Group taking a 50% split each in the airline. The airline was focused on providing regional service for the Nigerian people, with hopes of expansion after gaining popularity. Since Virgin Group owned a 50% stake in the carrier, the airline gained a slot at London-Heathrow for Virgin Nigeria and allowed Virgin Nigeria passengers to connect with the Virgin Atlantic route map.
After a year of planning, Virgin Nigeria took to the skies on June 28, 2005 with a flight from Lagos to London-LHR on an Airbus A340. The new national carrier quickly gained popularity, winning awards for best carrier in Africa within two years of starting operations. With the rise in popularity came the ability to gain new routes, Virgin Nigeria flights to South Africa and the United Arab Emirates were added as well as acquiring leased Airbus narrowbody aircraft to supplement their small fleet. The airline also started looking into a second base in Abuja, Nigeria.
While Virgin Nigeria was seeing some success, increasing competition from rival carrier Arik Air saw Nigeria’s aviation competition heat up. Both carriers offered similar routes and similar aircraft types with Virgin Nigeria offering a slightly more expensive price with a better inflight experience. Despite the popularity that the Virgin brand had experienced in Nigeria, the price of operating Virgin Nigeria was massive, especially since the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority called for the recapitalization and reregistration of airlines after the crash of Dana Air Flight 992. After the Virgin Group had analyzed the pros and cons to continuing Virgin Nigeria, the company determined that they would discontinue their relationship with Virgin Nigeria. This came after the airline was forced by the Nigerian government to move their domestic operations from the international terminal. Virgin Nigeria fought the case, citing easier transition for Virgin Nigeria customers as well as a previous deals made between the two parties to allow for Virgin to operate fully out of the international terminal. The airline lost the case and operations were moved.
Following the departure of Virgin Group in 2009, Virgin Nigeria went through a rapid rebranding and reorganizing. The carrier suspended their London and Johannesburg routes but hoped with stability that the carrier would return. The airline released a fresh livery and new brand, becoming Nigerian Eagle Airlines. The carrier’s fleet of Airbus aircraft were retired in favor of leased Boeing 737s. Nigerian Eagle Airlines had hoped that focusing on regional routes would allow them to create a decent profit. Their goal was eventually to expand to Europe and North America as soon as possible.
Rebranding had not done much for the carrier, without the financial backing of the Virgin Group, the carrier struggled to offer the quality of service that Virgin Nigeria had and the lack of a majority owner left the carrier looking for a leader. Nigeria Eagle Airlines announced that the new chairman would be the majority shareholder after the Virgin sale, and that honor went to Jimoh Ibrahim. Under Ibrahim, the carrier started a second rebranding to become Air Nigeria. The carrier ordered Embraer ERJ-190s in hope that they would reduce fuel costs for the airline instead of using the older Boeing 737 classics that made up the current fleet. Despite his efforts, the carrier continued to struggle to turn a profit. The airline started to cut corners to avoid costs and laid off staff to keep the airline afloat. The route maps collapsed to just Nigeria and neighboring countries in hopes of reducing fuel costs. By 2012, the carrier was in distress.
The final nail in the coffin came on June 13, 2012 when the Nigerian government had discovered the carrier cutting safety checks on aircraft. As a result, Air Nigeria was grounded until they could prove they were a safe airline and that all aircraft had received proper maintenance. By September, the carrier did not have a single aircraft airborne again and so the collapse finally occurred on September 10. This also came because Jimoh Ibrahim fired all 800 Air Nigeria employees, saying that since they had gone in search of other work that they were disloyal to the Air Nigeria brand. He would be sued for the unnecessary firing of the employees and forced to pay back ₦475 million. Arik Air already operates a majority of the Air Nigeria routes, allowing the loss of Air Nigeria to avoid drastically hurting the Nigerian aviation scene.
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