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2023: the year airlines said goodbye to the pandemic

The Middle East is one of the regions leading the global aviation recovery

Middle East aviation recovery FlyDubai
Some 2.2 million more seats are planned for FlyDubai as its fleet continues to grow year on year

Covid-19 caused problems for all industries, but a major issue for airlines has been that every performance reference since has been benchmarked against 2019 – the last full year before any pandemic disruption. 

The end of this year will be the point where comparisons can finally be made between 2024 and the previous year – consigning 2019 to a distant, if unforgettable, memory. 

The good news is that the Middle East is one of those regions leading the global aviation recovery. 

Compared with the winter of 2019/20, airline capacity in the region has increased by 2.2 percent – a modest increase when in more normal times over a four-year period we could expect capacity to grow by around 12 percent.

Nevertheless, it’s still a positive result.

As is always the case, the big three country markets of Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Qatar dominate. They account for 74 percent of all capacity, although only the kingdom has a domestic market with some 46 percent (14 million seats) allocated purely to serve local travellers. 

Sadly, not every market is recovering as strongly as the big three. Oman remains a third below its pre-pandemic levels as the national airline, and Oman Air plans to operate around one million fewer seats than in winter 2019/20 based on current schedules.

Not surprisingly, actual airline capacity reflects the markets that are growing but perhaps with an increasing focus towards the low-cost carriers.

While Emirates is down by some 4 percent with 7 percent fewer A380 services planned, the growth of its sister airline FlyDubai is very strong. 

Some 2.2 million more seats are planned for FlyDubai, compared with the winter 2019/20 programme, as its fleet continues to grow year on year. The two carriers are now codesharing and using the same terminals for some services in Dubai, so surely, it’s only a matter of time before two become one. 

The growth in the low cost airlines is also reflected in Saudi’s FlyNas, which will be operating nearly one million more seats this winter. The airline received eight new aircraft this year and has a further 18 scheduled for delivery by the end of 2026.

It therefore seems like one of the few that are well placed for supporting the Kingdom’s Vision 2030 programme – at least from a confirmed delivery perspective. 

Winter capacity

Oman Air’s fragile financial situation and yet another set of strategic reviews may be behind the near 30 percent reduction in capacity. It dropped several destinations through the pandemic that have yet to return including Abu Dhabi, Casablanca, Nairobi and Moscow.

Reviewing how the market changes from season to season is always interesting, as well as reminding us that we are getting older every time. But the fun part is seeing what new destinations are being operated by which airlines. 

This winter, some 1,486 routes will be operated with more than 1,000 seats planned. In winter 2019/20 that was 1,633, so some degree of reduction in the range of markets covered. 

But this winter will add 156 new airport pairs compared with last year. Emirates is adding new services to Tokyo Haneda and Montreal and its codeshare partnership with United Airlines also adds a Newark service. 

Qatar Airways will launch a non-stop Auckland service and add Haneda to its network as changes in access to Tokyo’s downtown facility to overseas carriers grows and Birmingham finally gets a competitor to the existing Emirates service.

Among its dropped routes are DWC World Cup bridge, services from Tehran to Muscat, and a Damascus to Kuwait flight operated by that most famous of carriers, Cham Wing Airlines.

Looking ahead

So as the summer season winds down, capacity falls back and some of the pressure of operating every hour of the day reduces for the airlines, airports and staff. 

This year’s winter season looks set to be ahead of the 2019/20 period, at least in the Middle East. New routes, more flights and, sadly, some routes dropped reflect the nature of the airline industry where some change in destinations occurs every year.

Airlines will now turn their attention to summer 2024. They will hope that what will have been a record year for revenues and costs in 2023 in most cases will be repeated in 2024.

Somehow, I suspect that might be a challenge for some.

John Grant is partner at UK consultancy Midas Aviation