Ali Al Naqbi has been at the heart of business aviation developments in the Middle East for more than a decade, playing a central role in the formation of the Middle East Business Aviation Association (MEBAA), of which he is chairman. This role followed three years as managing director of Abu Dhabi-based aircraft charter and management group Royal Jet. Previously, for almost 20 years, he had been with Abu Dhabi’s Amiri flight, from which Royal Jet was formed.
Based here in Dubai, MEBAA was launched in 2006 with 16 founding members, and a mandate to raise the profile of the region with OEMs, governments and regulators. The association’s founders have had strong ties to the MEBA show since its inception back in 2004.
“I am very satisfied with the association’s progress,” Al Naqbi told AIN ahead of this year’s show. “At MEBAA, we have managed [in only six years] to put our event on the global calendar. I am optimistic this show will become a landmark. It is growing and has a lot of potential. People are excited to be part of this event.”
The association’s support for MEBA, which is organized by Fairs & Exhibitions, has helped to make the biennial event one of the world’s top bizav shows. MEBAA’s standing in the global business aviation community was significantly enhanced after the group was accepted for membership in the International Business Aviation Council, and Al Naqbi has served on the board of the Montreal-based group since 2007.
However, Al Naqbi maintains that he’s only just getting started. It’s time, he believes, that Middle East business aviation came of age.
Speaking with AIN in his office at Dubai Internet City’s Business Central Towers, Al Naqbi reeled off a list of areas where he believes new thinking is needed. For example, the Middle East has long had a habit of employing large aircraft, which has stymied the potential of lighter jets.
MEBAA is working to improve dialogue with regulators and governments, particularly about registration. Infrastructure, including dedicated airports with trained ground handling staff and equipment, needs to improve to cater to an entire spectrum of aircraft types and sizes, he said.
Shades of Gray
Meanwhile, hundreds of aircraft are operating in the region while they are registered in other jurisdictions, a potential green light for illicit operations, in MEBAA’s view. Indeed, the so-called gray charter market for charter tops Al Naqbi’s reform agenda. His goal is clear: putting a total stop to illegal charter flights. He admits many will be angry with his campaign, including people in the industry making money on the side. But, in his view, progress will be possible only when fly-by-night operators realize illegal earnings might backfire on them, or that invalid insurance might lead to heavy losses in the event of an incident. “I need everybody to cooperate with me,” said Al Naqbi. “We’ll continue fighting until we stop it totally. [Many people] will be very unhappy, [but] guess what? I don’t care. We need to deliver our message and our message is very clear–we need to clean up the Middle East market.”
Al Naqbi understands the regulatory pressures arising from the growth of the region’s three leading commercial airlines–Emirates, Etihad and Qatar Airways–and the demands on time and manpower this places on the region’s regulators, including United Arab Emirate’s General Civil Aviation Authority (GCAA). He hopes the necessary oversight can develop beyond these airlines.
“The fact is we do have very open, strong relations with the GCAA, and all Gulf Cooperation Council [GCC] regulators. MEBAA is being listened to, and has become very important in the region,” he asserted. “The authorities now accept [that we represent] the business aviation community and that is [critical] as far as infrastructure and regulation are concerned.”
He noted that there is no official business aviation unit within the GCAA, although he praises the cooperation that exists with Aws Al Khanjari, its director of aviation safety and security. Al Naqbi is calling for vigilance from the authorities, including an increase in ramp checks on private jets operating into the GCC area, to prevent gray market and other infringements. “We fly on demand,” he noted, “[so] we need inspectors to be present at all times to check aircraft documentation.”
Al Naqbi wants the region’s business aviation community to dramatically increase the use of smaller aircraft within the Middle East. He says there are major opportunities to fly business executives using light jets on intra-Gulf routes. Today, he said, the smallest option is the Hawker 800 or similar midsized aircraft, costing $8,000 for two hours. “Right-sizing” on such routes could reduce costs to as little as $1,400 per journey, he believes.
“It’s not a great idea to have three people flying in a BBJ. A lot of business opportunities are lost because [business travelers here] don’t have the right equipment,” he explained to AIN.
The history of Middle East aviation explains the dominance of heavy jets, such as BBJs and ACJs. Al Naqbi attributes the rise of nonscheduled travel to government delegations traveling in large, luxury aircraft.
There is little doubt the current market is still slower than it was five years ago. “We’ve had some sort of flattening during 2011 and the beginning of 2012,” said Al Naqbi. “It’s up a little bit from a dollar point of view. [The regional industry should] achieve half-a-billion dollars in operator revenues this year. I expect this figure to reach $1 billion by 2018-20.”
Business aviation in the region has faced registration problems that are slowly moving closer to resolution, and aircraft formerly registered outside are coming back, he said. There are 800 aircraft operating in Saudi Arabia, while only 130 are domestically registered. The remainder operate under various different certificates in international jurisdictions. “More aircraft are coming to register, although they are not necessarily new,” he explained.
Another area that needs attention is infrastructure, he commented. Al Naqbi identified only four countries where airport facilities are available for executive aviation: Saudi Arabia (two), Jordan, Lebanon and Qatar, where the New Doha International Airport, opening in 2014, could give bizav new options. Many facilities are located at former military bases, as Abu Dhabi’s Al Bateen Executive Airport. MEBAA is concerned that a selection of facilities for business jets of all types just isn’t available today, and is calling for a concerted effort to increase the variety available and the availability of airports to handle them.
Developing suitable ground facilities also means that growth in MRO provision is crucial. Al Naqbi pointed out that there are at least three or four MROs in every U.S. state, yet there are only two or three dedicated business-jet MROs in the entire Middle East, led by ExecuJet and Jet Aviation in Dubai.
Another bugbear for Al Naqbi is the prevalence of single-aircraft operators in the Middle East–operators that he claimed are more likely to fall into the gray market. His message to them is to seek MEBAA’s advice to would-be aircraft owners, which is to find an operator that can put the aircraft under management in order to fly it legally and safely. “Please be careful what you are doing,” is his message to owners. “Put the aircraft with a sound AOC-holder and operator to manage the aircraft for you. This is more cost-effective and safe. Do not cut corners. Trust the big operators. MEBAA can recommend where [to] go. Put the aircraft under management.”
Al Naqbi is determined to rise to the challenges the region’s business aviation industry will face in the next five years and hopes that, by around 2017, it will be on a much more sound footing. “There is a lot of demand in the region,” he stressed. “We have to react positively to that. MEBAA is ready to take up the flag and talk to the governments. It is a hard job. If we could solve just one of the hundred challenges and issues we face, then that is where my satisfaction will come from.”