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Gulf aviation challenges present opportunity

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'Strategic planning for regional airlines and airports will focus strongly on operational efficiency to streamline operations and drive profit margins.' Stock photo: Getty

'Strategic planning for regional airlines and airports will focus strongly on operational efficiency to streamline operations and drive profit margins.' Stock photo: Getty

LightRocket via Getty Images

'Strategic planning for regional airlines and airports will focus strongly on operational efficiency to streamline operations and drive profit margins.' Stock photo: Getty

It's safe to say that after more than two decades of continuous growth, the Gulf has made its mark as a global travel and transit hub through large government-backed investments. Dubai International Airport had more than 89 million passengers through its gates in 2018 and although this sounds like a hefty number, it only represents a mere 1pc growth from the previous 12 months.

Back in 2012-13, passenger numbers grew 15pc. However, reduced footfall growth is a trend which is echoed across most major airports in the Gulf.

As we embark on a new decade, the aviation industry in the region will be reflecting on a period of many ups and downs. Reducing costs and becoming more competitive are now the primary objectives of the Gulf aviation industry.

Strategic planning for regional airlines and airports will focus strongly on operational efficiency to streamline operations and drive profit margins. This shift is the result of a slowdown in regional growth, new aircraft technology and the spread of the low-cost carrier model.

In November, Emirates Airlines posted 2019 first-half profits of $235m (€213m), up 282pc on 2018. However, this was largely as a result of the reductions in the cost of fuel across the industry. While the profits are substantial, Emirates won't be pleased that total revenue dipped 3pc.

FlyDubai, the budget airline, reported a loss of almost $50m in the same period and is continuing to suffer from the grounding of the Boeing 737 Max.

With less headroom for growth, Gulf aviation risks being disrupted. National flag carriers are starting to feel the heat from low-cost airlines.

In some instances, these carriers, who once complemented the services of major airlines, are now in direct competition for new routes.

Aircraft manufacturers such as Airbus and Boeing are developing next-generation planes to fly longer distances than ever before. This has allowed creative partnerships to emerge and shake up the status quo.

A recent example is the partnership signed between Wizz Air and the Abu Dhabi Development Holding Company, to launch a new low-cost airline out of Abu Dhabi. This will increase the reach of Wizz Air across Europe, the Indian subcontinent, Middle East and Africa, while also boosting tourism for the UAE capital.

Closer to home, Ryanair has had rapid growth with its Jordanian routes launched in 2018, and last year committed to adding four new routes to Amman and Aqaba during the winter season.

Where there are challenges, there are opportunities, and Irish aviation and aerospace companies have identified the Gulf as a key growth region for 2020. Irish companies hungry for new business in the market are likely to find worthwhile potential in the outsourcing of operations and maintenance, while also attracting future sales with new low-cost airlines in the region.

Budget airlines are agile and generally more open to change than large state-owned ones.

Enterprise Ireland recently hosted seven of Ireland's leading aviation and aerospace companies at the five-day Dubai Airshow, where they met key industry representatives to gain an insight into how their innovative solutions could streamline services.

Over the next 10 years, the majority of airports in the Gulf will have double the capacity they have currently. An increase in the rate of footfall, larger fleets, more retail capacity and enhanced security measures will evolve to create an environment in which Irish innovation and expertise can really make a difference.

In Saudi Arabia, as well as expanding King Khalid International Airport in Riyadh, there are plans to develop regional airports to improve connectivity within the kingdom, and boost new industries such as tourism. These projects could be delivered through public-private partnerships.

Ireland is a global powerhouse in the sector, from establishing the world's first commercial aircraft leasing firm and starting the world's first duty-free store, to producing Ryanair - Europe's largest airline brand.

Today, the aviation sector employs 42,000 people here across a broad range of functions, such as precision engineering for aircraft parts, maintenance repairs and overhaul, airport operations, aircraft leasing and travel technology solutions. Its value to the Irish economy stands at €4.1bn and it will continue to be an invaluable sector as we grow new international partnerships the world over.

Alan O'Mahony is market adviser, transport and industrial, at Enterprise Ireland, Middle East and North Africa

Sunday Indo Business