Virgin is well known for being a group with its fingers in many pies. From cruises to mobile phones, the record company from the 1980s has gone from strength to strength. Once, they even had an airline in Nigeria! Here’s a look at Virgin Nigeria Airways, and what happened to it.
When Virgin had an airline in Africa
Since that first bumped flight that inspired Richard Branson to go into aviation, the Virgin Group has spread its proverbial wings and become a big player in the world of travel. As well as Virgin Atlantic, the group also holds shares in Virgin Australia, Virgin Connect (currently Flybe), not to mention Virgin Galactic and Virgin Orbit.
In the past, the Virgin Group also operated Virgin America, a relatively short-lived low-cost airline serving the west coast out of San Francisco Bay. But did you know, there was once a Virgin airline in Africa too?
The origins of Virgin Nigeria
Virgin Nigeria was born to existence in 2004. On the 28th of September that year, the Virgin Group signed an agreement with the Nigerian government to launch a new airline for the nation. Virgin Nigeria Airways would be owned 49% by Virgin Atlantic and 51% by Nigerian investors.
The airline took its first flight on June 28th, 2005, less than a year after conception. This maiden flight used an Airbus A340-300 and flew a route from Lagos to London’s Heathrow Airport. Despite the naysayers, Virgin Nigeria went on to become a hugely successful airline.
Within its first two years, Virgin Nigeria had flown more than a million passengers and carried over four thousand tons of freight. It won Airline of the Year in 2006 in the THISDAY Awards and was nominated in the same year for ASATA’s African Airline of the year.
At its peak, the airline was running around 14 aircraft, ranging from the tiny Fokker 50 to the Boeing 767-300ER and the Airbus A340-300. The airline was looking to expand and had begun making plans to open a new base in Abuja, but this was not to be.
When Virgin pulled out
Things began to go pear-shaped for Virgin Nigeria in 2008, when the Nigerian government demanded it move its domestic operations to the international terminal at Lagos, Terminal 2. Despite Virgin Nigeria protesting against the move, its operations were moved without its consent, leading Virgin to question whether it was right to continue to be associated with this airline.
Virgin began to step back from the airline immediately, and in 2009, it announced it would be ending its long haul services to London and Johannesburg, effective from the 27th January that year. At the time, the airline said that,
“The decision to suspend both services is to enable us to review our entire long haul operations including our product offerings on these routes. In the meantime, our focus is on consolidating and continuing to expand our profitable domestic and regional flight operations.”
It allayed the fears of loyal customers in Nigeria by saying, “Once the long haul product review has been finalized, we are certain to return to the long haul routes.” However, it never did.
Rebranding and final sale
Nine months later, on the 17th of September 2009, Virgin removed its branding from the Nigerian airline. From that day onwards, the airline was known as Nigerian Eagle Airlines. The newly named airline would focus on domestic and regional services, although it did promise to expand into Europe and the USA in the future. Virgin retained its 49% stake in the airline, but not for long.
In June 2010, the new chairman of the airline, Jimoh Ibrahim, acquired a controlling stake in the company and announced it would be rebranded again. This time, it would be called Air Nigeria Development Limited, branded as Air Nigeria.
Two years later, in 2012, Air Nigeria was grounded by regulators over safety concerns. In September that year, it was reported to have fired all its staff for ‘being disloyal’. As a result, it had to suspend all its operations, local, regional and international. In November, its AOC expired, dampening hopes of a return of the airline even further.
The cease of operations is dated the 10th of September 2012, which is considered to be the date that Air Nigeria became no more. Although the Nigerian government has made noises about relaunching the airline as a state-owned entity, nothing has come of it as yet. For now, despite the best efforts of airlines like Air Peace, the full potential of Nigeria’s aviation industry remains untapped.