Regional airline service has been slow to take root in the Middle East, and especially at the entry-level turboprop end of the market. But now, a start-up operator in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) is preparing to launch a feeder service to the region’s aspiring hubs in Abu Dhabi and Doha, giving locals the chance to bypass crowded Dubai.
Based in Fujairah, UAE, Eastern Express plans to ferry business passengers into Abu Dhabi and Doha to connect with growing Gulf-based international passenger networks starting during this year’s first quarter.
Feasibility studies and planning for the new carrier began in early 2009, after CEO Capt. Alex de Vos sold his interest in Bahraini consultancy Gulf Executive Aviation. The Dutchman established the company in mid-2011.
Eastern Express expects to start operations with a leased 29-seat British Aerospace Jetstream 41, and plans also to lease a similarly sized Saab 340 as back-up equipment. It had hoped that flights would start before the end of January, but at press time the UAE’s General Civil Aviation Authority (GCAA) hadn’t finished the approval process for the new airline. According to de Vos, the GCAA has not previously certified operations involving a Saab 340, hence the delay. He now hopes the airline will launch operations by the end of March. Historically, few commercial turboprop operations have emerged in the Arabian Gulf region, which is more commonly associated with long-haul airlines and large business jets.
“Initially we will start out with only one aircraft. The second will come in a matter of months. We [hope to] have four aircraft within four years,” de Vos told AIN. “We will test markets first before committing to larger orders.”
Eastern Express plans two flights a day to Abu Dhabi and one to Doha, with a portion of the eventual fleet flying on charter, and an initial workforce of 25 growing to 50 by 2015. Later, plans call for it to expand into other Gulf states and other routes that the Jetstream 41 can serve with its range of approximately 800 miles.
De Vos wouldn’t yet confirm possible commercial ties with Etihad or other international carriers, including Emirates and Qatar Airways. “[Etihad] would be an obvious choice, with us flying into Abu Dhabi. We are talking to various airlines. We haven’t finalized any agreement yet,” he said. “We are new kids on the block. They want to see us operational first, adhering to certain safety and quality standards. Give us a few months of operation and then we will make our interline agreement known.”
Representatives of three major UAE business families, including Ras Al Khaimah-based Abulhoul Airways owner Ahmed Abulhoul, serve as the main shareholders behind Eastern Express, while de Vos holds the balance of the company’s equity. Initial aircraft finance will come from those funds. As Eastern Express conducts negotiations for the lease of aircraft, GCAA approval hinges on the company’s obtaining use of Abulhoul Aviation’s aircraft operator’s certificate.
De Vos anticipates business travelers will account for the majority of his passengers. Fujairah is fast becoming another UAE business hub. Situated close to the Straits of Hormuz, gateway to a third of global seaborne traded oil, it serves as the region’s main bunkering port, while a major new oil pipeline from Abu Dhabi’s Habshan field has opened and the bustling Khorfakkan container port lies 15 miles north.
The UAE’s federal structure means government bodies operate in every emirate and must report to the capital in Abu Dhabi. “There is heavy traffic between Fujairah and Abu Dhabi,” said de Vos.
Meanwhile, as the only entire emirate on the UAE’s east coast, Fujairah enjoys an expanding tourism industry and its list of Indian Ocean-facing resorts is growing. “New hotels are being built as we speak,” said de Vos. “Initially, tourism will not provide that much traffic. But the moment we start interlining with existing international carriers, the numbers will increase.”