A furore has erupted in Nigeria over the ferry flight of Nigeria Air's first of three B737-800s provided by preferred bidder Ethiopian Airlines for the startup's air operator certificate (AOC) audit.

The arrival of ET-APL (msn 40965) in Abuja from Addis Ababa International on May 26 was met by a water canon salute and hailed by outgoing Aviation Minister Hadi Sirika on social media. "To Almighty God be all the glory. It has been a very long, tedious, daunting and difficult path," he tweeted. The aircraft was already painted in Nigeria Air livery. ADS-B data shows it returned to Addis Ababa on May 27.

Nigerian media and the five airline-member Airline Organisation of Nigeria (AON) reacted with outrage as the finalisation of the joint venture startup between the Nigerian federal government (51%) and a consortium of Nigerian investors led by Ethiopian Airlines (49%) is still subject to a decision by the Abuja High Court. This follows an interim interdict secured by the AON in November 2022, which temporarily prevents the federal government from finalising the joint venture agreement with the consortium. The AON, representing Azman Air, Air Peace, MaxAir (Nigeria), TopBrass Aviation and United Nigeria Airlines, want Nigeria Air's Air Transport License (ATL) revoked, and the AOC process stopped arguing the national carrier would be anti-competitive and damage domestic airlines.

The Nigerian federal government argues Nigeria Air would not limit competition but instead provide stability as none of the many domestic private airlines operating with a couple of aircraft are likely to survive in the long term. Air Peace, one of the most vocal critics of Nigeria Air, itself operates with A320-200s wet-leased from SmartLynx Airlines Malta (2N, Malta International) and SmartLynx Airlines Estonia (MYX, Tallinn Lennart Meri), according to the ch-aviation fleets module.

According to insider information, all has been prepared for the launch of the national carrier. However, the process has been suspended since early 2023, pending the verdict on the case by the High Court in Abuja. The establishment of Nigeria Air as a Public Private Partnership (PPP) has been led by the federal government's Infrastructure Concession Regulatory Commission (ICRC). It can only complete the process after the judicial decision, with the Council of Ministers' approval then needed as the last step for the recruitment of Nigeria Air employees and the provision of the first three of seven B737-800s from Ethiopian Airlines, all of which have already been identified. All manuals have already been rewritten to Ethiopian Airlines' standard to prepare for the AOC, insiders have told ch-aviation.

The legal delay has meant uncertainty for domestic and foreign investors hoping the pace will pick up following the swearing-in on May 29 of new Nigerian President Bola Tinubu.