x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Region's budget airlines hampered by restrictive air traffic regimes

Restrictive entry regulations in many airports are preventing the Gulf's budget airlines from greater expansion,

The biggest challenge facing the growth of budget airlines in the UAE is restrictive air traffic regimes or "aero-politics", say the heads of Air Arabia and flydubai. Recent events in India, where flydubai was forced to delay initial flights to three cities, as well as the slow pace of expansion into several Gulf countries and Pakistan and Iran, underscore the hurdles the two carriers face in carrying out their growth plans.

"There needs to be a real lifting of the cap of letting airlines operate into countries so people can fly cheaper and much more conveniently," said Adel Ali, the chief executive of Air Arabia. "We still need to grow in a number of places which are restricted at the moment in terms of traffic rights." The head of the Sharjah-based airline said it was allotted seven flights a week to Pakistan but should fly as many services there as it does to India, where it operates 110 weekly flights. "It's clear that there is a big population of Pakistanis in this country but we are very limited in access," Mr Ali said. The same was true for Air Arabia in the Gulf, where it would like to fly twice daily to Qatar and "grow massively" in Saudi Arabia.

flydubai, which launched out of Dubai airport last June, abruptly pulled out of its plans to fly to India just a month later due to "operational issues". Indian media later reported the pull out was due to Indian civil aviation authorities rescinding flydubai's landing rights to three Indian cities after being put under pressure by Indian carriers. Ghaith al Ghaith, the chief executive of flydubai, declined to comment on India but said restrictive air regimes in the region was a major challenge.

"The biggest problem for airlines in our region that could stop growth is the fact that we don't have a liberal policy as far as aero-politics [is concerned]," Mr al Ghaith said. But he said the situation was improving overall. "Things are easing." Even when the UAE reached new accords with neighbouring countries, the pace of rolling out the new rules could be slow. Although Iran and the UAE reached an air services agreement in December 2008 allowing greater access for UAE carriers into the Islamic republic, Air Arabia had yet to see the fruits of this agreement, Mr Ali said.

"We are still waiting for implementation." igale@thenational.ae