Taking to the skies

KEITH J FERNANDEZ finds out what’s going on in the skies
Emirates ... Outbound traffic is rapidly increasing

There’s a lot of movement up in the skies right now, with dynamism the order of the day whether in terms of transcontinental travel or simply more weekends away due to the mushrooming of budget airlines.

Carriers, too, are pushing to keep customers coming back with special packages and deals even as more routes are introduced and more airlines try to break in.
First up, the market is being shaken up by the new low-cost airlines that seek to create a whole new class of frequent flyers rather than, as some fear, take business away from existing carriers. “The impact of low-fare airlines on the market will be to expand the pie for everyone - as has happened in Europe and the US,” says the menaJet’s chief commercial officer Mazen Hajjar. The airline hopes to commence operations by the end of this quarter.
Adds Ali Fairooz, director sales and marketing, Air Arabia, “Despite the current downturn that the market has been experiencing, it is forecasted that global economic growth will return and air travel will rebound to long term trends.” Fairooz quotes the UN’s Civil Aviation Association forecasts that Middle East passenger traffic will grow by 4.4 per cent in 2004 and 6.3 per cent in 2005 in his analysis.
Part of this is due to the fact that more expatriates are coming to live in the region, says Mike Simon, Emirates’ senior vice-president for corporate communications. “Not only is the out-bound destination holiday traffic expanding very fast, but the national market is also becoming more adventurous,” he says of the UAE. “Emirates’ flights to Brisbane have encouraged nationals to take their families to Gold Coast vacations, while the new expats find they are much nearer to destinations like the Maldives, Lebanon, India and Turkey.”
It’s a trend showing up in both a substantial increase in inbound traffic from Europe and a significant rise in demand to US destinations for business and leisure, says Lufthansa general manager passenger sales, UAE and director, Gulf, Iran and Pakistan, Uwe Wriedt.
“We only see opportunities for growth in the region, particularly on our Middle East to Europe sectors, which clearly shows that confidence is back,” agrees Swiss’ area manager, Middle East, Pakistan and Iran, Felix Rodel.
Factor in the deals that airlines are offering, such as the buy-one-get-one-free from Gulf Air and others, and you get an idea of just how much frenzied market activity there actually is. Almost every airline is trying to up the ante on in-flight services: Lufthansa talks to making every trip “a heavenly pleasure” plus a full onboard serve concept entitled ‘Conoisseurs on Board’; Emirates has introduced new mini suites in first class, massage cradle seats in business class and a 500-channel ICE system in all three classes; Swiss has Halal menu options and Arabic entertainment; even Oman Air has introduced a new onboard supervisory programme.
Finally, there’s the increased expenditure on airports and infrastructure, such as the $2.5 billion construction contracts for Doha’s new international airport and the building of the advanced jet engine test facility in Dubai.
Complementing that is the stated objective of Doha as a transit hub to rival Dubai. Says Ahmad Jummun, regional manager, UAE, ME and Pakistan at Air Mauritius, “Market segmentation is complex but the overriding concept of operating as a hub is recognised and promoted.
Dubai is emerging as the hub par excellence of the Middle East and other ME destinations like Doha are following in the same path, developing two sector traffic transiting through the Middle East.”
 Make way, then, the competition has landed.