DUBAI: While travelers in the Middle East are still facing some restrictions and regional airlines are suffering financially as a result of the impact of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic, Abu Dhabi is bucking 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 were going through the paperwork to set up the airline they announced in December 2019. Once the rubberstamp was received in October, the world was still facing a lot of restrictions and the IATA was just as pessimistic.
In November, the association said the total net loss for the global aviation sector would amount to $118.5 billion in 2020 and a recovery would not be seen until the second half of 2021.
In the Middle East, passenger demand fell by 73 percent and regional airlines are likely to record losses of $7.1 billion, 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 Jan. 15, with Thessaloniki starting on Feb. 4, and flights costing from 129 Emirati dirhams ($35).
“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.
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.
“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,” 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,” Van Schaick said.
“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.
As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, many companies have seen extra costs in terms of increased cleaning and restricted operations and 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.