x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Abu Dhabi to Fujairah in 40 minutes - by plane

UAE's first domestic airline set to offer flights twice daily

DUBAI // Four hours by car or a 40-minute flight: next year travellers between Abu Dhabi and Fujairah will have a choice.

The country's first domestic airline, launched yesterday, plans twice-daily flights on the 200km route. A one-way ticket will cost Dh645.

"Time is very important for business passengers," said Abdul Jabbar Gargash, director of the new airline, Eastern Express. "With this service, you don't have the headache of getting up early and driving for four hours. You just go to the airport, check in and half an hour later you are flying."

There are plans to add flights from Fujairah to Ras Al Khaimah and Sharjah, and a daily flight to Doha soon after launch, with further GCC routes in the near future.

The new flights are particularly welcome at Fujairah International Airport, where the terminal has capacity for two million passengers a year but handles only a fraction of that.

"Part of the strategy for the airport is to encourage more passenger traffic, so I'm happy that Eastern Express has started," said Charles Hajdu, the airport's business development manager.

"The business plan that they've put forward has the best chance of succeeding. The majority of our traffic is cargo based.

"We do have a fantastic terminal building but we only have two or three flights a week bringing passengers in. If I can get it to over a million passengers in the next five years, I'd be over the moon."

The privately owned Eastern Express was set up in August this year with a staff of 50 at a cost of US$5m "and around 27,000 grey hairs", said its chief executive, Alex de Vos. It will initially operate a single turboprop aircraft, which will be bought in the coming weeks.

The goal is for the airline to feed in to the network of larger regional carriers flying out of Abu Dhabi. "We expect to sign the agreements next summer," said Mr de Vos. "Existing carriers will want to see that we're operating within certain standards. That's perfectly understandable and we will factor that in."

Although flying time between Abu Dhabi and Fujairah will be 40 minutes, passengers will still have to present passports or eGate cards and go through security checks, which can be time consuming.

That could change eventually, said Mr de Vos. "But initially there's no way around it until everyone is accustomed to the domestic service."

Industry experts gave a cautious welcome to the new arrival. "There will always be a need for greater connectivity and faster connection times," said Gaurav Sinha, of Insignia, a travel branding agency in Dubai.

"From an academic perspective a low-cost shuttle service should be a relevant initiative, but it begs the question of whether we have enough demand or not.

"I don't feel there's a need for a domestic airline in the UAE, we're a very small country. These plans are either extremely visionary or extremely brave."

mcroucher@thenational.ae