x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Domestic air travel adds a dimension

Expanding domestic air service is a fine way to tie the country together more closely, and will make international travel, too, easier for many.

Next week, when Flight 109 goes wheels up at 6pm, the UAE will become a little smaller. The country's first domestic airline, Rotana Jet, will begin offering service from Abu Dhabi to Fujairah. Future routes will link the capital with Al Ain, Sharjah, Ras Al Khaimah and Ruwais.

Day trip to Al Gharbia? Lunch meeting at Fujairah's Free Zone? Investor briefing in RAK? Suddenly, travel time from the capital to, well, just about anywhere in the country will be cut to about an hour.

In announcing the expansion this week, Rotana Jet pointed out that "air connectivity is a key component of any country's development". And the company is right. Economic growth depends on strong and efficient transport links between major metropolitan areas.

In the UAE, ribbons of tarmac already tie the country together, and construction is underway on a freight-rail system spanning 1,200 kilometres. Domestic commercial air travel is just one more dimension of the federal transport project.

Rotana Jet already offers service to Sir Bani Yas and Dalma islands, with both routes operated partly on an ethic of public service to connect remote areas with the centre of the country. Flights from the islands make it much easier to reach the capital and connect to international flights, not to mention encouraging vacationers to experience the character of the country outside the main cities.

The route expansion targets areas that are already easily accessible by road, but it is hoped the convenience of an hour-long flight will further encourage travel, whether for commuters, tourists or residents who just want to make a day trip. Rotana's new project aims to become a profitable business, but it also serves a public good by extending the transport network. For the time being, promotional fares as low as Dh150 should lure first-time passengers to get on board.

Translating early interest into a sustainable clientele will be challenging. Regional airlines around the world have had wobbly success in the face of flagging passenger numbers, fuel prices, and the cost and upkeep of quality aircraft. But the success or failure, in this case, is not just about one company. If done well, and if prices and service remain competitive, domestic air travel will be another way to connect people in the UAE with the world and with each other.