Nigerian tycoon seeks to relaunch troubled airline


A Nigerian tycoon vowed to relaunch the country’s troubled Nigerian Eagle Airlines giving it its second rebranding in a year and pledging to double its fleet of aircraft within months.

Jimoh Ibrahim — a Harvard law graduate whose interests include oil and gas, hotels and insurance — bought an undisclosed stake in the airline a month ago and has pledged to make it profitable again within six months.

Ibrahim said the airline, re-branded Air Nigeria, was buying new planes and aimed to double its fleet of five by Nigeria’s 50th anniversary of independence from Britain on Oct. 1.
“The worst days are over. The good days are here,” Ibrahim said at a press conference in the commercial capital Lagos, adding the airline would have cleared virtually all of its outstanding bank debts within a matter of days.

Airline industry sources estimate Virgin Nigeria’s debts were around $200 million a year ago and would since have risen with interest.

Ibrahim said the aim was to have half of the fleet owned by Air Nigeria and half under lease agreements.

The airline was rebranded Nigerian Eagle Airlines, from its original name Virgin Nigeria last September in a bid to cut its ties with Virgin Atlantic, which is no longer involved in the day-to-day running of the airline. Despite the rebranding most Nigerians still know the airline as Virgin Nigeria.

British billionaire Richard Branson’s Virgin Atlantic, which helped found Virgin Nigeria, has said it is looking to sell its 49% stake in the airline, for which it paid around $25 million in 2005.

The airline industry in Africa’s most populous nation is going through a difficult time after rapid expansion in recent years. Many airlines are heavily indebted to the country’s banks, themselves just recovering from the impact of a $4 billion bailout.

The central bank said last Sunday it was extending a 500 billion naira ($3.3 bln) fund to stimulate credit in the power and manufacturing sectors to the airline industry.

Ibrahim did not detail how he planned to fund the rebranding and ambitious expansion of Air Nigeria.

Pic: Nigerian plane