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Nigerian airline collapses as industry struggles

Sunday, September 09, 2012 | 9:27 AM    

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LAGOS, Nigeria (AP) — Almost half the aircraft had been pulled out of service at Air Nigeria, this West African nation's second-largest airline, and its staff hadn't received a pay check in four months when its top executive summarily fired nearly all of its employees for "dishonesty."

"Corporations are like individuals, who naturally will get sick," Air Nigeria chairman Jimoh Ibrahim was quoted as saying. "The usual thing to do is to admit them in hospitals, either for corporate surgery or for treatment, as the case may be."

The collapse and the mass firing of about 800 workers at Air Nigeria comes as only four domestic airlines are currently flying in Nigeria, down from nine flying at the start of this year. The dramatic decrease highlights the current turmoil of the nation's troubled aviation sector.

While the federal government insists it conducts strict maintenance and financial audits of airlines, the financial mess left behind after Air Nigeria's shutdown and a June crash by another carrier that killed more than 160 people has left many Nigerians leery of flying and distrustful of official safety promises.

"I think that if in the future, if anybody's coming into this business, I think the government needs to put in a particular panel to check that person's mental state, first of all, and the financial records need to be checked so we can know if this person can even do the job," said Isaac Balami, president of Nigeria's National Association of Aircrafts Pilots and Engineers. "We've seen people that can't even manage an ordinary business. ... Aviation is not for a lazy man or somebody who doesn't know what he's doing."

Angered by their firing, more than 60 former Air Nigeria employees protested Friday outside of the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority and later marched past a domestic wing of Lagos' Murtala Muhammed International Airport. Former employees described a dysfunctional environment where bosses removed telephone lines and called Internet access and using an elevator to reach their high-rise office "a luxury."

Staff last received a paycheck in April and had been sitting at home for weeks for a call to return to work. At one point, employees also were forced to sign "loyalty oaths" to swear their allegiance to the company and promise not to be union members, workers said. Yet the company continued to collapse, even after it received money from a federal bailout fund, employees said.

"If they want to steal Nigerian money, don't use our hands or our heads to steal it," said an employee who asked only to be identified by her first name Barbara, out of hopes she might still receive the rest of her salary. "Just steal it and deal with your conscience."

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 earlier this year saw workers claim the company's finances stopped it from properly servicing its fleet. A top former company official also referred to airline's aircraft as "flying coffins" in local media reports

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