By Camillus Eboh

ABUJA, Aug 24 (Reuters) - Nigerian airlines have gained the
right to fly their own planes to the United States after an
improvement in the West African nation's aviation safety
standards, Nigerian and U.S. officials said.

Airline security in Africa's most populous country had come
under heightened scrutiny last December following a failed
Christmas Day bombing attempt on a U.S. airliner blamed on a
Nigerian passenger with explosives concealed in his underwear.

But Nigeria is now one of just six African nations to have
gained the "Category 1" status from the U.S. Federal Aviation
Administration, allowing domestic carriers to apply to operate
direct flights to the United States with their own aircraft.

Currently, Nigerian carriers must "wet lease" aircraft and
crew from another airline with Category 1 status for U.S.-bound
flights, which is prohibitively expensive. Arik Air is the only
Nigerian carrier certified and able to afford U.S. services.

"This achievement is an important milestone for Nigeria and
U.S.-Nigeria bilateral relations," U.S. Ambassador Robin Sanders
said at a news conference, adding the move was the culmination
of years of work between the two nations.

A Nigerian, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, has been charged with
trying to blow up Northwest Airlines flight 253 as it approached
Detroit from Amsterdam with almost 300 people on board. He
transferred to that flight from a KLM flight from Lagos.

Nigeria recently passed an International Civil Aviation
Organization audit after acquiring full-body scanners,
explosive-detecting equipment and creating separate bays at
international airports for screening of U.S.-bound passengers.

Nigerian Aviation Minister Fidelia Njeze said the work had
only just begun with the new rating.

"Some countries that attained Category 1 status have lost it
when they allowed their standards to drop ... The next 12-18
months are very critical to stabilise the system under the
watchful eye of the world aviation community," she said.

Cape Verde, Egypt, Ethiopia, Morocco and South Africa are
the other African nations with a Category 1 rating, meaning they
are deemed to have the necessary regulations in place to oversee
carriers in accordance with minimum international standards.
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(Writing by Nick Tattersall; Editing by Mark Heinrich)