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Middle East airlines are leaders of the pack

Regional airlines have much to teach global competitors when it comes to liberalisation and sustainability

Customers in the Middle East are well served by airlines including Emirates, who are embracing new technology at every turn Emirates
Customers in the Middle East are well served by airlines including Emirates, who are embracing new technology at every turn

The great and good of the global aviation industry were out in force at the International Air Transport Association (IATA) Annual General Meeting held in Dubai earlier this month.

One week after the Airports Council International (ACI) held its global event in the Saudi capital Riyadh, you could be forgiven for thinking the industry does nothing other than meet up and chat. 

However, while the Riyadh ACI soiree was a polite event, the IATA conference has in recent years become a forum for lashing out at certain sectors of the industry. 

This year, the IATA director general Willie Walsh and his colleagues had sustainability, regulation, aircraft manufacturers and costs in their sights.

All of this got me thinking how advanced the Middle East market is compared to other parts of the world. 

On the matter of sustainability, IATA rightly pointed out that without government support the industry will not hit its objectives for Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF).

Quite why it has taken so long for the industry to point out the obvious is a question of politics but global governments have once again let the industry down with a lack of incentives for SAF production. 

Sustainability is more than just fuel. It is about the use of alternative power sources, waste reduction, operational efficiency and smarter working practices. It is also about something as humdrum as finding alternative carbon-friendly means of transport to and from airports. 

In the UAE electric travel to and from airports is getting ever closer, electric cars are increasingly used for transfers and public transport is more widespread and improving. 

Compared to the rest of the world, the major markets of the Middle East are leading the way on many of these fronts, adopting best practice where possible and investing millions of dollars in improving their carbon credentials. 

Regulatory criticism was a major theme at the event. Archaic practices in the industry came into sharp focus. Governments in some parts of the world continue to frustrate aviation and economic growth by blocking new services, restricting traffic rights and taxing air fares like luxury travel.

Levels of service are forever improving, technology is introduced at every corner

The Middle East in contrast leads on liberalising aviation and shows other regions how to build economies through open-minded attitudes.

Airport charges also came in for a bashing, particularly when contrasted with the capital investment needed and the profits demanded by privatised airports around the world. 

Shooting from the safe territory of home soil, Sir Tim Clark, president of Emirates Airlines, was heavily critical of London Heathrow and the tragic story of the never-to-be-built third runway. 

While the runway issue is a tragedy overseen by the UK government, the rising costs of operating at London Heathrow and the quality of product offered were issues on which all airlines agreed. All were frustrated at the lack of an improvement in services at LHR. 

Representatives from other countries attending the IATA AGM could not believe the “UK-only” hijack of cash for simply dropping someone off at an airport (it costs £6 for 10 minutes at London Gatwick).

Aircraft manufacturers also came in for their fair share of criticism. It is hard to defend the indefensible, particularly when it comes to Boeing where further issues with fuselage production and loose-fitting studs have emerged in the last few days.

If we move beyond the current issues at Boeing, then we see that the Middle East market is at the centre of aircraft orders and developments. Emirates, FlyDubai, Saudia, Riyadh Air and Flynas have placed huge orders in the last year, highlighting the growth that they expect in the next decade.

Of course, Qatar Airways is the launch customer for the B777x, although when the aircraft will be delivered is another question – certainly not in the next year. 

With all the industry criticism, it made me realise just how fortunate consumers in the Middle East are to have their aviation sector.

At some point we all get frustrated when travelling but, compared to the rest of the world, the Middle East market is open to all. Levels of service are forever improving, technology is introduced at every corner, and new destinations to points around the world are added every month. 

So, next time you travel and end up waiting in a check-in queue for 10 minutes at security, just remember to be grateful for what you have. You could be about to travel from a far worse location. 

John Grant is partner at UK consultancy Midas Aviation

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