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Nigeria Eyes New National Airline

FILE - Journalists gather next to a Nigerian Eagle Airlines plane during its launch in Nigeria's commercial capital of Lagos, Sept. 18, 2009.

Former Nigeria Airways official Dele Ore remembers that, in its heyday, the airline was an airborne ambassador to the world for Africa’s most-populous country.

“You have Nigerian dish being served by Nigerian cabin crew, being flown by Nigerian pilots,” he said.

But those days are long gone. The carrier folded in 2003. It spent its final years enfeebled by mismanagement and corruption, said Ore, a former pilot and director of flight operations for the airline.

“The flights were just a point to London, a point to New York, there was no connection to any other place,” he said. “They wasn’t strong enough to join the big alliances. So it was sure death for the airline.”

Successive national airlines flopped, and Africa’s largest economy hasn’t had a flag carrier since 2012, although the country is home to a number of commercial airlines that fly domestic and international routes.

Nigeria’s aviation ministry announced this week that it had set up a committee to look into restarting a state carrier.

Francis Ayigbe is the former head of communications for Virgin Nigeria, a 2004 joint venture between Nigeria’s government and British billionaire Richard Branson. Branson's company eventually withdrew from the operation, and after several name changes, the carrier ceased operations in 2012.

Ayigbe said that with Africa’s most-populous country as its customer base, a revitalized Nigerian carrier could succeed in a way neighboring airlines can’t.

“Nigerians are highly, highly mobile,” he said, “so why can’t you have an airline that can, you know, tap into that aspiration?”

But any new carrier will need to overcome a shortage of qualified staff and maintenance facilities. If Nigeria wants to see its national carrier fly again, Ayigbe said it would likely need to partner with a foreign airline to get off the ground.