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FARNBOROUGH AIRSHOW 2018

Nigeria seeks foreign help for 30-plane, 80-route airline

London

NIGERIA, revealing plans for a new national airline, has said a majority stake could be available to an overseas backer as it seeks know-how and cash to help the startup avoid the fate of former flag carriers.

The west African state has no cap on overseas ownership of its airlines and would be prepared to offer more than 50 per cent of the company - named Nigeria Air - to a strategic ally, said Tilmann Gabriel, who is helping to coordinate the project; he was being interviewed on the sidelines of the Farnborough Airshow.

Nigerian Aviation Minister Hadi Sirika held talks at the expo with the chiefs of Ethiopian Airlines Enterprise, Africa's biggest carrier, and Qatar Airways, which holds a stake in British Airways owner IAG SA.

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Other operators are also interested, said the executive, who said the new airline will have a fleet of 30 aircraft and operate 80 routes, half of them international, within four years.

In unveiling the plan for Nigeria Air, Mr Sirika said that having once been dominant in African aviation, Nigeria has a "huge need and desire" for a national airline.

Africa's most populous nation with close to 200 million inhabitants has struggled for decades to support a viable home-grown carrier, with a succession of operators collapsing or slashing routes. This has left the oil-rich country dependent on services provided mainly by European and Persian Gulf airlines for trips beyond the region.

Former flag-carrier Nigeria Airways collapsed in 2003; its successor Air Nigeria - a joint venture with Richard Branson's Virgin Group - folding in 2012. When private operator Arik Air was taken over by Asset Management Corp of Nigeria last year, long-haul flights were suspended.

The new operator plans to begin flying in December with a fleet of 15 leased aircraft, and has started talks with Airbus and Boeing on buying new aircraft. The requirement includes short-haul planes for local and domestic flights, plus wide-bodies for flights to long-haul locations such as London and New York. Inter-continental services should begin in the middle of next year.

Ethiopian Airlines has indicated interest in the project. This carrier, Africa's only consistently profitable one, serves about 70 global cities and 60 across Africa from its hub in Addis Ababa. BLOOMBERG