Kuwait's Wataniya Airways will begin flying twice daily between Dubai and Kuwait City from Jan 24.
New airline to tap into tourist trade
Regional tourism may be slowing, stock markets are in disarray and banks are facing lean times - but that is not discouraging one Gulf airline from taking its first flight this month. Wataniya Airways, based in Kuwait, will begin flying twice daily between Dubai and Kuwait City from Jan 24. It will court the discerning Kuwaiti traveller with onboard services such as SMS text messaging and BlackBerry use, access to the VIP "Royal Terminal" in Kuwait and leather seats normally reserved for luxury sport cars such as Porsche and Ferrari. "We have 26 seats in first class, and we want these passengers to feel as if they are boarding a 26-seat business jet," said George Cooper, the chief executive of Wataniya. Using an Airbus A320 with the lowest seat density of any airline, Wataniya - Arabic for national - will feature 112 centimetres of legroom in first class. Another 96 seats in premium economy will each provide 86cm of leg room, or 5cm more than the standard economy seat offered by Air Arabia, the Sharjah budget carrier that also operates the A320. There are already two airlines based in Kuwait - Kuwait Airways and Jazeera Airways, a budget airline - serving the nation's three million people. But Mr Cooper said Wataniya would fill a niche for Kuwaiti businessmen and holidaymakers. "We did our research and found there isn't anybody offering what we have in products, both hard and soft, such as the Royal Terminal and our guest services." Customers would be fast-tracked through the VIP terminal and would soon be able to access a special Wataniya lounge. The Kuwait economy grew 8 to 9 per cent last year, and was expected to increase by up to 4.5 per cent this year, Mr Cooper said. However, the nation has not escaped the global financial crisis. In October, Kuwait's Gulf Bank halted trading after reporting losses of 200 million dinars (Dh2.65 billion) due to forfeitures on currency derivatives contracts. A month later, the Kuwait stock market temporarily suspended trading to safeguard their investments from further losses. And last month, Kuwait abruptly cancelled a US$17bn (Dh62.44bn) deal with Dow Chemicals. Politicians who opposed the deal cited economic factors. Despite this, Mr Cooper said the Kuwaiti economy was robust. "With oil at $30 to $40, Kuwait still makes money at that point. We still believe the Kuwaitis have discretionary income to travel." Fares on the Wataniya website for the airline's first week are Dh1,350 for return in premium economy and Dh2,800 in first class. The fares were similar to those of other full-service airlines flying the route, Mr Cooper said. Daily flights from Dubai International Airport depart at 11.55am and 10.05pm. The Planet Group, based in Dubai, has been appointed Wataniya's general sales agent in the UAE. Wataniya, which began trading on the Kuwait stock exchange last month, will receive four single-aisle Airbus A320s this year and another three next year. The airline is committed to servicing seven destinations this year, but has only publicly announced Dubai, along with Bahrain and Beirut later in the first quarter. Mr Cooper said a decision to fly to Abu Dhabi International Airport would be considered later in the year, when it received additional aircraft. Wataniya claims it is the first airline in the world to use the OnAir onboard telecommunications system to allow passengers to connect with BlackBerry devices and SMS text messaging. Passengers will also be able to use iPods and personal computers during the flight. The airline also offers an onboard entertainment system from Thales, the French aerospace and technology firm. A recent study by Deloitte, the consulting firm, forecast tourism growth in the UAE to slow to 5 per cent this year, from 15 per cent last year. But the slowdown would be greatest among European holidaymakers coming to the UAE, with less impact on intra-Gulf travel, the report said. firstname.lastname@example.org