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News analysis… Virgin Nigeria: Going, going…



In from Ali Smart . . .
One airline that held a lot of promise for the Nigerian traveling public was Virgin Nigeria Airways because it raised the bar as far as air travel was concerned.
Virgin Atlantic, owned by British billionaire, Sir Richard Branson, started operations in Nigeria in 2001, and became the second largest carrier on the Lagos-London route, after British Airways.
But with the media awash with reports of mass sacking of the airline cabin crew as well as the closure of its call centre at the weekend, it may be correct to say the end may have finally come for the once vibrant airline.
How Virgin Nigeria came to this sorry pass
In the view of Kelvin Osahon, an aviation expert, trouble began for Virgin Nigeria, the airline sought after by the traveling elite following its alliance with Air Nigeria, owned by Barr. Jimoh Ibrahim, the billionaire business mogul.
According to Osahon, the partnership deal with Air Nigeria led to the misfortune of Virgin Nigeria.
“The airline has suffered a chequered existence. From Air Nigeria, it became Nigerian Eagle Airlines and assumed the status of a national carrier. But the name change hardly boosted its fortunes.”
Pressed further, Osahon said: “The airline’s fortunes dwindled so much that most of its passenger fleets became prostrate such that the new management under Jimoh Ibrahim sought a bailout from the federal government in the now infamous Aviation Fund running into billions, which has remained a subject of controversy with nobody able to account for the funds.”
Virgin Nigeria’s swansong
All the Nigerian cabin crew were allegedly given only three weeks’ notice with no severance package regardless of their length of service.
About 20 air-hostesses were sacked, and they closed down their Nigerian call centre and laid off the staff.
In a hand wriggling gesture, Sir Branson, while adducing reason for the company’s exit from Nigeria blamed poor leadership and corruption.
Apparently seething with rage, the chairman of Virgin Atlantic said: “We have Virgins’ ill-fated footsteps by setting up a new airline in Africa in conjunction with Nigerian government, the details of the doomed attempts to crack the Nigerian market in the 2000s is better imagined. We put together a very good airline, the first airline in West Africa that was ever IOSA/IATA operational safety audit accredited but unfortunately it got tied down to the politics of the country…we led the airlines for 11 years.”
Expatiating, he said: “We fought daily battles against government agents who wanted to daily make fortune from us, politicians who saw the government 49% as a meal to seek for all kinds of favour, watchdogs (regulatory body) that didn’t know what to do and persistently asking for bribes at any point. Nigeria people are generally nice but the politicians are very insane…that may be an irony because the people make up the politicians.
“But those politicians are selfish, we did make N3billion for the federal government of Nigeria during the joint venture, realising that the government didn’t bring nothing to the table/partnership except dubious debts by the previous carrier, Nigeria Airways. The joint venture should have been the biggest African carrier by now if the partnership was allowed to grow, but the politicians killed it.”
Nigeria is a country we shall never consider to doing business again,” Branson reportedly said in a tone of finality.
Double speak
But the airline’s Sales Agent in Nigeria, Chief John Adebanjo, has however dismissed insinuations that the airline was planning to pull out of the country due to harsh operating environment.
While admitting that the airline was discontinuing with the services of Nigerian crew in its operations, he however said it was not an indication of a pull-out of Nigeria.

Read also: Special Report… Nigeria Airways: A history of epilepsy and lessons for Buhari

“Virgin Atlantic Airways has no plans to pull out of Lagos route, we are committed to continue delivering the experience our customers love, whether they are flying for business or leisure,” he said.
‘’We have decided that we will no longer have crew based in Lagos. This is by no means a reflection on our Lagos-based cabin crew, the primary purpose of our locally based cabin crew has been to provide cultural expertise, and customer feedback has shown us that this is no longer a requirement on the Lagos route.
‘’The additional complexity required to operate an international crew base where there are no foreign language requirement means it is no longer sustainable going forward. This announcement has no impact on our flying programme and we plan to continue flights between Lagos and London.
‘’After 14 years of flying the route, we remain committed to servicing the Nigeria people, whether it be for business, family or education.’’
Run of misfortunes in aviation sector
Nigeria’s aviation sector, is facing massive debt with many airlines struggling to maintain premium operations, which has put safety, security and international respectability at great risk.
The country’s national carrier, Nigeria Airways Limited, which was established in 1958, went under in 2003 and was later liquidated by the public enterprises bureau.
Light at the end of the tunnel
Interestingly, President Muhammadu Buhari’s administration has hinted of plans to revamp international airport terminals in Lagos, Abuja, Kano, Port Harcourt, and Enugu and expand their capacity next year.
This, he hopes, will make the airports more vibrant and be able to generate revenue.

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