Air Arabia was the first low cost airline in the Middle East region since 2003. Affected by large-scale border shutdowns Air Arabia was the only airline managed to launch a new airline; Air Arabia Abu Dhabi during COVID-19.
I sat down with Adel Ali, founder and CEO of Air Arabia Group, to learn more about his airline’s response to COVID and involvement with aviation.
Air Arabia Group operates 62 Airbus A320 family aircraft, including the new A321 long-range edition. With this new capability, Air Arabia can fly as far as Kuala Lumpur from Sharjah.
How Did Your Involvement with Aviation Begin?
“My involvement with aviation began when British Airways flew the Concorde between London and Bahrain. At the time, the airline was looking for a Customer Service Officer to look after the privileged Concorde passengers. Every passenger was interesting – world leaders, ministers, senior business figures and so on. So that was how I got my foot in the door of the industry.”
“Concorde was like a bus for me, I flew on Concorde probably more times that I have flown on Air Arabia!”
“My father used to ask me, “What’s wrong with you? You started with supersonic, then downgraded to subsonic and now low-cost!” But, I always told him that low-cost is the only [branch] that makes good money.”Adel Abdullah Ali
How has COVID impacted your operations during such an uncertain era?
“Frankly, we had a fantastic history from 2003 until March of this year. However, the progression and rapid development of the airline industry came to a rapid halt and Air Arabia is no exception.”
“Whilst we didn’t want redundancies, it is an unfortunate reality of the crisis. We made a conscious effort to retain as many employees as possible, including extending annual leave, etc.”
“Although the situation is sad, I am sure that as a company we will come back along with the broader airline industry. Air Arabia is fortunate to have a strong foundation to face and manage the challenge. As a dynamic business, we were able to adapt very quickly. However, the most fascinating aspect of this crisis has been the desire for travel, I still see customers wanting to get on a plane and fly across the world!”
Air Arabia published a $46 million loss during H1 2020 – does the airline need any government assistance to continue operating?
“Air Arabia has been able to survive on existing company cash, it will be able to be self-sustaining into the foreseeable future. Governments around the world have recognised that the airline industry is the backbone of their respective economies, so the availability of assistance is important.”
“Air Arabia has been in touch with the UAE Government and potential funding is under consideration.”
You are the only airline CEO to have launched a new airline during COVID. Tell us more about Air Arabia Abu Dhabi
“We always planned for Air Arabia Abu Dhabi to launch in May, but all the region’s airports were closed at the time. As the airports reopened the airline was ready, so we commenced our first route between Abu Dhabi and Alexandria, Egypt.”
“Despite the challenges stemming from the pandemic, the launch has been both rewarding and successful. The demand has been on-point, giving us the opportunity to expand our network to eight destinations from Abu Dhabi.”
What are the projections for Air Arabia Abu Dhabi?
“We think Abu Dhabi is a solid market, which will give the airline an opportunity to grow and develop to meet market requirements.”
“All timeframes have been completely overhauled in response to market uncertainty, but, based on current trends, Air Arabia is aiming to introduce 3-4 aircraft per year. We are aiming to have good resource compatibility between the various arms of Air Arabia, so aircraft can be used on any route.”
Air Arabia has a partnership with Etihad. Can you tell us more about the ins-and-outs?
“Air Arabia and Etihad complement each other. The demand for low-cost carriers is now so great, that places like Abu Dhabi need the choice and flexibility. By having this collaboration, both airlines can be stronger into the future.”
“From a commercial point of view, Air Arabia and Etihad will continue to compete on certain routes as necessary. Etihad owns 51% of the Abu Dhabi subsidiary and Air Arabia owns 49%. Currently both airlines have teams working in synergy, which will continue to become more seamless as time goes on.”
Air Arabia A320 and A321 have significant less seats and more leg room than other low cost airlines. Does that model work well for you?
“Despite being a low-cost carrier, Air Arabia has 215 seats on the A321LR; as opposed to the standard 240 seen on most LCCs. More legroom and better cabins have paid dividends over the last 17 years.”
Passengers are willing to pay more, as well as fly longer distances with an LCC, rather than opting for a full-service carrier on long flights.
“We have a consistent ~80% load factor and many regular customers who have loyalty to Air Arabia.”
What has Air Arabia done to boost confidence amongst the flying public?
“Air Arabia has done exactly what the IATA, WHO and Airbus have recommended for safe air travel. Our commitment to cleanliness and hygiene has always been exceptionally high, so we have continued to focus on keeping passengers safe.”
“We have implemented procedures to ensure that meals are only handled by the passengers, everyone is checked for virus symptoms and other universal measures like masks.”
“Having operated numerous repatriation flights, we are grateful to have prevented any outbreaks or contamination onboard Air Arabia aircraft.”
Although there is demand for travel, very few people actually can, due to quarantine and border controls. How should governments and regulators ensure that travel is safe and permissible?
“The IATA recommendation really sums it up: standardised, easy-to-use processes that enable international cooperation for the resumption of travel.”
“The biggest challenge is that every airport and country has minute but confusing differences, which makes safe travel difficult. People want to move, so we need to allow them to do so!”