By JON GAMBRELLAssociated Press
LAGOS, Nigeria (AP) - Regulators grounded Air Nigeria for safety checks Wednesday, while the company's top executive claimed instead that he had stopped flights from the country's second-largest airline to "reorganize" after its engineers held a sporadic strike.
The halting of Air Nigeria flights - and the confusion surrounding it - offers a worrying portrait about the state of aviation in Africa's most populous nation after another airline crashed a passenger jet on June 3, killing all 153 people on board and others on the ground.
While officials continue to investigate the cause of that Dana Air crash in Lagos, other airlines continue to fly in Nigeria with older planes and far more questionable financing. And despite the fact that Nigeria now has the top U.S. aviation rating, passengers remain hesitant about flying in the wake of the crash.
Harold Demuren, the director-general of Nigeria's Civil Aviation Authority, said Wednesday that Air Nigeria would be able to resume operations after investigators concluded a series of safety checks on the airline's planes. He said the checks were necessary after engineers attached to the private air carrier had been on strike and had not attended to the company's fleet of 11 aircraft, mostly Boeing 737s.
Demuren said those checks could be finished within a day.
At a news conference, Air Nigeria chairman Jimoh Ibrahim denied that his airline had been grounded, waving around a photocopied letter he said came from the aviation authority on Tuesday allowing the carrier to operate. He did not explain why Demuren said his airline had been grounded.
"We are not grounded by anybody, but we decided not to fly today because we just felt that we should reorganize and create particular awareness because we're coming out of (a) strike," Ibrahim said. He said flights should resume Thursday.
Yet financial troubles have trailed Air Nigeria, a one-time darling of the country when billionaire Richard Branson helped create it as Virgin Nigeria in 2005. Branson pulled out of the airline and in 2010, Ibrahim took it over and renamed it.
Ibrahim, who also directs a major hotel chain, an insurance firm and an oil company, has strong ties to the country's political elite, as do many in business in the nation. But the engineers' strike saw workers claiming the company's finances stopped it from properly servicing its fleet and a top former company official also recently referred to airline's aircraft as "flying coffins" in local media reports.
Ibrahim told reporters on Wednesday that the airline wants to expand aggressively internationally, purchase more long-range aircraft and hopes to fly to Rome and Paris in the future. The airline made a major announcement in May in a leading national newspaper, saying it would buy four Boeing 787 Dreamliner airplanes for $887 million through a loan with the U.S. Export-Import Bank.
However, officials at both Boeing and the bank later told The Associated Press there was no deal. Ibrahim himself shied away when asked Wednesday about the alleged purchases, saying the airline continued to look at Airbus and Boeing aircraft for its expansion plans.
Investigators, meanwhile, were still trying to figure out why an MD-83 operated by Dana Air crashed into a Lagos neighborhood on June 3 while flying from the Nigerian capital of Abuja. Its pilots radioed in just before the crash to say both engines had failed. Aviation authorities have halted Dana Air flights for the time being.
Since the crash, civil aviation authorities in Nigeria have come under increasing political and public pressure in a nation with a long history of major aviation disasters. Halting flights and rechecking aircraft could calm nerves but the civil aviation authority still remains understaffed and underequipped.
Meanwhile, Ibrahim insisted that his airline met international requirements to fly to London and said he welcomed the scrutiny of the public.
"We've never had any crash and we will never crash," Ibrahim said.
Air Nigeria: http://myairnigeria.com
Jon Gambrell can be reached at http://twitter.com/jongambrellap .
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