Virgin Nigeria (VK) was a sad one honestly!
I still have my Eagle flier card from those days somewhere.
Well, where do I start this tale from?
They were actually the first true hub airline in Nigeria, as they are the only airline ever operate all their flights (domestic and international) from a single terminal in the country.
Even Nigeria Airways was split operations between domestic and international terminals.
Branson first started with charging very high royalty fees.
Unsurprising however, as this is normal with Virgin Atlantic (VS), Virgin Australia (VA) and the defunct Virgin America (VX).
VS Group also had full operational and management control, despite having the smaller equity stake.
Of course VS is operationally sound, so no wahala!
With an initial fleet of 2 A320-200 (LZ-BHB and LZ-BHD), operations started between LOS and ABV.
Subsequently, a fleet of 7 (at its peak) B737-300 were added.
These were used to expand operations across Nigeria and the West Coast.
The A320s were mainly used to launch new routes and up gauge at peak periods, thanks to their bigger, better and IFE equipped cabins.
Unfortunately, too many bad moves were made by the VS led management.
The biggest such was launching LHR and JNB with the A 340-300.
While the services were popular, the complexities of operating a wet-leased long haul fleet composed of 2 aircraft from one of your key competitors began to kill VK.
This is an airline that was designated flag carrier and had route authorities to 64 countries, so, WHY?!!
Why set it up for failure by launching LHR first against BA and VS?
Only to follow this up with JNB against a then strong SAA!
With a killer blow of DXB, against the then growing monster called EK.
At the time, EK was running a daily 777 to LOS and considering opening ABV.
Anyhow, the new flights affected VS, as Nigerians obviously prefer jollof rice to bangers and mash!
Before you could say Nollywood, VK's LHR slots were changed for "operational reasons".
Arrival into LOS was now at the unholy hour of 04.00, with LHR departure of 21:55.
Meanwhile, VS departed LHR at approximately 23:00 and had a more decent 05:00/06:00 (delayed) arrival into LOS.
This is the case till date!
The timing change was the beginning of the end.
Before you knew it, empty long haul flights became normal for VK.
After a year and a half or so, the A 340 s were sent back to VS as the lease rates were crippling.
A pair of B 767-300 ER leased from LatCharter.
Of course, YL-LCY and YL-LCZ were operated mainly for charter or rescue work.
So, crucially, they were not as well-appointed as the A 340 s.
You know we Nigerians love our comfort!
Making this bad situation even worse, the LHR flights were moved to LGW to "improve the schedule".
Who improves LON traffic or fares by going from LHR to LGW for God's sake?
Exemptions being BA, VS, the Euro carriers.
And the Gulf 3 obviously!
Despite VK having a slightly better schedule, now “departing” LGW at 22:45 and “arriving” LOS as 06:00,
YL-LCY and YL-LCZ were some of the most unreliable aircraft ever to operate in Nigeria.
In effect, the schedule was better on paper but worse operationally!
It got so bad that they had to wet lease a BMI (gosh, I am old now!) A 330-200 (G-WWBD) for about 6 months.
Just to rescue the schedules!
I got well acquainted with the floors of LGW so well then due to their frequent break downs.
I was a student in the UK then, cheap ticket things!!
Anyhow, this above scenario was further complicated by management desire to purchase the ERJ-190s.
On paper it was a wonderful plan, modernize and streamline the narrow body fleet.
But there was a looming problem.
UBA was VK’s lead banker, and had little or no experience in aviation financing.
At the time the US$450 million order for the Jungle Jets was placed, VK was already encumbered with approximately US$250 million of debt to the Bank.
A further unsecured facility of US$ 15 million was taken from GTB, another leading Nigerian bank.
All this spending/borrowing was to be covered by the revenues from 7 leased B737-300s, which by some accounts, were leased at a cost of US$300,000 a month, each!
And a couple of expensive (US$750,000 a month, some say), beat-up 767s which rendered whatever hopes the long-haul network had impotent.
It was in this time frame VK completely dropped international operations.
The result of this “idea” was yet another set of expensive aircraft, this time in form of finance leases from UBA.
Even more expensive, operationally, was the fact that the Jungle Jet was new to Nigerian crews.
Eventually, VK only ever took delivery of 2 of the Jungle Jets.
By now, the storm in the teacup had become a full thunderstorm!
Early 2009, Nigerian aviation authorities were forcing VK to split its local and international operations as is the local norm.
This unique feature, however, was a key premise for VS initially signing up for the VK project.
As a direct result of this, by the autumn of 2009, VS Group was recalling its staff to London and demanding the immediate removal of all associations with Virgin from VK.
VS cited the above disagreement as well as the airline’s unprofitability and high debt levels as the reasons for its action.
The above actions and reactions broke the agreement which formed VK.
VS also stands accused of, by some estimates, the withdrawal of more than US$ 40 million in royalties and technical fees from VK.
All this drama and financial maneuvering effectively rendered the airline worthless.
Remember that this was at the height of the financial crisis in 2009.
None of the Nigerian Banks wanted to cross Emir Sanusi, the then Governor of the Central Bank, whom was taking measures against banks carrying the sort of massive bad debt VK had become.
So, VK fell under the ownership of UBA’s subsidiary, UBA Capital as a toxic asset awaiting disposal.
Apart from the equity losses and bad debt, UBA Capital had to:
Swallow the penalties for the 8 undelivered Embraers.
Endure the loss of income and value on the 2 delivered aircraft.
Pay GTB their US$ 15 million.
It was in this ownership period that VK became known as Nigerian Eagle.
Nigerian Eagle was a temporary arrangement by UBA Capital to keep VK as a flying asset.
This was not public knowledge at the time, until 2010, when business man Jimoh Ibrahim acquired the airline.
Jimoh’s only previous venture into Nigerian aviation was the purchase of the crippled EAS Airlines in the aftermath of a fatal crash in Kano.
He renamed it Nicon Airways, and the less said about the airline, the better.
Having acquired VK, Ibrahim renamed it Air Nigeria.
He started well, injecting US$ 5 million into the airline immediately he bought it and set about paying down the airline’s debt pile.
He also got code shares and interlines with KQ and DL.
This gave UBA the confidence to extend US$ 70 million in financing to VK in order to reorganize operations, acquire 2 additional 737 s and relaunch long haul.
LGW and JNB were relaunched in May 2012 by wet-leasing 2 A330-200 from EgyptAir.
Plans also existed for FCO and CDG.
At this time, W3 had also gone long haul, on the same triangle of LHR, JNB and DXB.
So more competition.
At this point, VK had less than 9 months to live.
When the end came, it was swift, sudden and brutal.
A combination of owner-manager as well as outright mismanagement was what finally nailed VK.
Workers had been protesting unpaid salaries right from the relaunch of long-haul, so for at least 6 months before the end.
They also accused Mr. Ibrahim of misappropriating VK's share of a US$300 million Aviation Support Fund, which he applied for from the Federal Government to support the airline’s operations.
Of course, a hungry man is an angry man.
And VK’s operations began to suffer, again.
This time, in the hands of angry employees.
Ibrahim has always flatly denied the allegations, but the evidence was mounting.
Unpaid bills, one aircraft AOG for weeks due to a US$ 200 part and mounting delays across the network became the norm.
This despite the fresh credit extended.
Confusion reigns till date about whether he actually ever paid off VK’s original debts upon assuming control of the airline.
On the 6th of September 2012, Jimoh Ibrahim fired all the staff of Air Nigeria for “disloyalty” and shuttered the operations of the airline 4 days later.
From a dear friend.
A 319/320/321,A 330-200/300, A 340-300/500/600, B 737-300/400/500,B 737-700/800,B 747-300/400,B 767-200 ER/300 ER, B 777-200/200 ER,CRJ 200/900/1000,DHC-8-300/Q 300, DC-10, ERJ-195,MD-11