UTC 10:52

Ultra long-haul could be the future of Middle East aviation

The impact of the coronavirus pandemic has been particularly pronounced in the Middle East. With airlines in the region shorn of custom, it has been extremely difficult for even some of the very biggest names in aviation to respond. And the short-term prognosis for the region remains bleak, with the IATA forecasting a 56% drop in the number of passengers in 2020.

Ultra long-haul

Some analysts believe that ultra long-haul flights could help carriers in the Middle East begin to recover from this process. This concept involves flights that last 14 hours, and which are continuous between two major global cities. The basic idea behind this is to offer convenience to the marketplace, shaving valuable time off flights. And airlines such as Emirates and Etihad are well placed to deliver this.

There is already precedent for this concept, and figures which suggest that they can be successful. For example, in its first year of service, the non-stop Perth-London route run by Qantas carried over 155,000 passengers. Clearly there is a market desire for these long-distance routes, which save significant amounts of time, and for that matter resources as well.

And this will be of pressing concern to the Middle East aviation industry, at a time when some of the super connector hub airports could be delegitimised. Dubai, Doha and Abu Dhabi have all played a major role in facilitating international air travel, but this could also vary rapidly in the future in a post-Covid environment.

Connecting hub

Emirates has been particularly successful in long-haul travel, with its modus operandi of connecting Dubai with the rest of the world. The airline has accumulated a large fleet of Airbus A380s and Boeing 777s, and is also a highly regarded in terms of customer service. The major airlines in the region can also play a role in facilitating the prestigious events due to be staged in the Middle East in the coming year, with both the upcoming 2020 G20 Riyadh Summit in Riyadh and Expo 2020 Dubai on the horizon.

And carriers in the Middle East also have several advantages. Big names such as Emirates and Etihad have already achieved global brand recognition, while the quality of their products and the extensive networks they have built up are huge assets. Airlines in the region are already committed to the long-haul concept, and ultra long-haul may suit them ideally.

There are also strategic advantages for Middle East carriers in taking on long-haul routes. By acquiring more fuel-efficient and longer-range aircraft, airlines in the region will be preparing themselves for the contemporary marketplace. And this will be coming at an ideal time, when the relations between Israel and the other Middle Eastern countries seem to be improving, at least in the aviation market.

Quarantine measures

Certainly, there are challenges. Quarantine measures remain in place in the Middle East, despite efforts to improve connectivity via testing. “Mandatory quarantine measures stop people from traveling. We understand that governments’ priority is on protecting the well–being of their citizens. Quarantine destroys livelihoods. Testing is an alternative method that will also save travel and tourism jobs,” Muhammad Albakri, IATA’s Regional Vice President for Africa and the Middle East, commented recently.

These policies continue to reduce air travel in the region, and some major events have been postponed as a consequence. For example, the Middle East and North Africa Business Aviation Association was recently held back until 2021.

In this climate, carriers have had to make some difficult decisions, and Emirates recently announced that it would offer staff six months unpaid leave as it considers cost-cutting measures. In the longer-term, even bigger and more permanent decisions than this will have to be made. With Emirates having returned its staff to full pay, redundancies can be expected.

Nonetheless, the aviation industry in the Middle East is robust, and if airlines are willing to think outside of the box and tweak their revenue models around ultra long-haul, a resurgence could be achievable in the relatively foreseeable future.

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