Although travelers in the Middle East still face some restrictions and regional airlines struggle financially as a result of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic, Abu Dhabi is going against the trend and is set to launch a new low-cost carrier in January and is even eying Saudi Arabia as part of its ambitious expansion plans.
Back in March at the height of the pandemic, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) predicted that the global aviation sector would need $200 billion of state support, or only about 30 of the more than 700 airlines around the world would survive.
It was at this time that the team at Wizz Air Abu Dhabi went ahead with the paperwork to set up the airline they announced in December 2019. Even when the approval was received in October, the world was facing a lot of restrictions and the IATA was just as pessimistic.
Tough times for airlines across the world
In November, the association said the global aviation sector’s overall net loss would amount to $118.5 billion in 2020 and would not see a rebound until the second half of 2021. Passenger demand dropped by 73 percent in the Middle East and regional airlines are expected to report $7.1 billion in losses, the IATA added.
Despite all this, Wizz Air Abu Dhabi, which is a joint venture between the Abu Dhabi government and Switzerland-headquartered Wizz Air Holdings plc, will launch its inaugural flight to Athens on January 15, with Thessaloniki starting on February 4, and flights costing from $35. The airline already has plans to add more routes, with flights to Armenia, Cyprus, Egypt, Georgia, and Ukraine set to be launched in due course.
“The waiting is almost over for Abu Dhabi fans of our ultra-low fare airline,” said Kees Van Schaick, managing director of Wizz Air Abu Dhabi. “Our network from Abu Dhabi will expand rapidly as destinations on our planned network are added to the ‘green countries’ list. Thanks to the support of the government and our local business partners in Abu Dhabi, we are fully prepared. We have the aircraft, we have the crew, we have the partners, and we are ready to fly,” Mr. Van Schaick added.
The fledgling airline currently has three leased Airbus A321 neo (new engine option) aircraft among its fleet, but as the routes increase, it plans to add more before the end of the year.
“We have today three Airbus A321 neos, with a seat count of 239 on one aircraft. The first one will start to fly to Greece. Sadly, we will not be utilizing from the start all three aircraft to the maximum extent because we simply have no routes without guaranteeing enough. But again, we are confident that will happen not that long from now. We have the three aircraft in the UAE, and, if all goes according to plan, we will be adding aircraft and of course we will do so wisely. We will only do so when we make certain returns with them. But that may be four to six aircraft in the next 12 months, that should be achievable.”
The Dutchman would not reveal when the airline aims to become profitable or break even, but he did say that Saudi Arabia was among its target markets, with its route map extending to those within five hours flying from the UAE capital.
“We very much look forward to operating in Saudi. When? I will not speculate, but we very much like to operate to Saudi. To and from Saudi we will be able to stimulate demand for our type of air traffic and that will be good for Saudi and good for the UAE,” he said.
COVID-19 and additional costs
As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, many companies have seen extra costs in terms of increased cleaning and restricted operations and Mr. Van Schaick said the new Abu Dhabi airline was no different.
“Yes, that brings additional costs because of the cleaning, simply said, which is more frequent. Also, boarding processes may take a bit longer than normal. We are, of course, turning around our aircraft very quickly, but once we land at the destination, the boarding process takes longer, which means more time on the ground before we turn around and fly back.
“That brings a certain cost to the system, but there is no other way of doing it like this. We see additional cost, but it is part of going into business,” he added.