x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 21 September 2017

New airline's flight delay

Eastern Express hopes to offer flights from Abu Dhabi to Fujairah for Dh645 - but the GCAA sent back its plan to lease an aircraft

DUBAI // A new domestic airline that promises daily flights between Abu Dhabi and Fujairah may not launch until midsummer.

Eastern Express was expected to start flying in January, but was delayed by the General Civil Aviation Authority's (GCAA) rejection of its plan to lease an aircraft and crew.

Instead, it now plans to buy its own aircraft, and has raised extra money from its investors to do so.

"We needed to change our model and raise additional capital, which we have done in recent months," said the chief executive, Alex de Vos. "It's a straightforward process now. I don't see a reason for the GCAA to not accept it.

"As soon as we have the approval of the aircraft, as well as our plan of how to inspect it, then we're off."

The company is looking at buying a 29-seater turboprop Jetstream 41, made by British Aerospace. The aircraft, if bought new, costs between Dh22 million and Dh25m, although Mr de Vos declined to confirm that figure.

The aircraft are used extensively by the UK-based operator Eastern Airways. The North Lincolnshire firm started with a similar business model by operating domestic flights from Humberside to Aberdeen, before adding other domestic and international routes.

Mr de Vos said his company, which is not associated with the British one, would follow a similar pattern, starting with domestic flights and then adding a daily service to Doha.

When it initially announced the service, Eastern Express said the 200 kilometre one-way trip from Abu Dhabi to Fujairah would cost Dh645 plus taxes.

However, it remains to be seen what effect the extra cost of having to buy an aircraft will have on the ticket prices.

Gaurav Sinha, a UAE-based travel industry analyst, said the GCAA's stance must have hit Eastern Express hard.

"These are things that are there to test the mettle of entrepreneurs," he said. "Some of the best companies start under the most challenging of circumstances.

"If it was easy, everyone would be setting up new airlines. The fact that these challenges exist and they have to abide by these rules and regulations, that's the true test of the entrepreneurial spirit."

Ismail Al Baloushi, the executive director of aviation safety at the GCAA, said the authority was concerned solely with safety.

While he had no problem with a company leasing its aircraft, the key question was how it would maintain safety standards.

"If you want to lease or buy an airplane, you have to show that you are able to guarantee and sustain a safe operation," he said.

He said that there was potential conflict over the registration of the aircraft in a different country, as well as the possibility that a third party operator ill-suited to the scale of the planned business would have been involved.

Initially, Eastern Express was going to "wet lease" its aircraft, meaning it came with a set of flight and ground crew.

Now it will have to hire four pilots, two flight attendants, and three ground engineers, which would itself push back the launch.

"This will require training," he said. "With the application process and slots at the simulators, that will take two or three months. That will make it summer before we see a launch."

He declined to comment on the exact date.

mcroucher@thenational.ae

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