The Middle East Business Aviation Association (MEBAA) is confident that 2021 Dubai Airshow, the first major international aviation show calendar event to take place in well over a year, will presage a return to form for the region’s business aviation community. In fact, the sector has a strong showing in terms of traffic volumes over recent quarters due, in part, to the dearth of scheduled flights available in the Gulf.
“Dubai Airshow is a big show,” founding and executive chairman, Ali Alnaqbi, told AIN in an pre-show interview. “Business aviation is going to be a strong presence.”
Everybody was hoping to see confidence come back, he said, even though smaller helicopter and travel events had taken place in Dubai in the past year. “There were a couple of smaller shows in Dubai in the past 12 months, but not on the scale of Dubai Airshow or the MEBAA Show,” he said.
“I hope it goes well and restores confidence in the industry," he added. "This is the kind of event that everyone looks to. There's a lot of involvement on the government and protocol sides. It's a gathering for aviation, an event that will give people a sense of perspective in the effort to get back to normal.”
Things were shaping up well, he said, with visitors and delegations from many countries reversing earlier decisions not to attend. “The UAE government has eased some restrictions. It is going to be an event where people will feel comfortable to go back to business.”
Alnaqbi said the business aviation migration from Dubai International Airport (DXB) to Dubai South (DWC), a key gauge of industry health in the city, was continuing, with only a minimum number of flights taking place at DXB. According to sources familiar with the situation, the UAE authorities appear not to want to public position DXB as a hub for business aviation movements.
“It's continuing and growth is healthy. Only the minimum is happening at DXB,” Alnaqbi explained. “When a number of Emirates flights were grounded [due to the pandemic], slots were available and many operators tried to fly from DXB. But apart from Jet Aviation and ExecuJet, there are no other FBOs available there, and both of them are authorized to operate at DWC. The migration is happening naturally.”
Official first-half numbers at the DWC VIP Terminal bear out Alnaqbi’s comments. In the first half of 2020, movements fell 41 percent to 1,811, before jumping 347 percent in the same period this year to 8,088. Although the accompanying figures were not released, full-year movements were up 21 percent in 2020, according to official government estimates.
“Business aviation is now in better shape than in the [second] quarter and the beginning of the year,” he said. “There were a lot of restrictions on the airlines, so business aviation was often the only way to move passengers around.
“If you talk to the FBOs, you'll see that a lot of movements are happening. Although I think comparisons with 2018 or 2019 are unfair, we've reached a point where there are movements happening in all sorts of ways. Requests are being received by several charter companies, and FBOs are handling a lot of aircraft. Business aviation is coming back, and recovering slowly but surely.”
Qatar Executive has continued to be the pick of the region’s charter operators and took delivery of its first Gulfstream G700 long-range jet as launch customer in August. The formal cessation of the boycott of Qatar by four Arab nations, including Saudi Arabia and the UAE, took place in January.
Alnaqbi said that although Qatar Executive movements were largely government-related, its dominant position in the region meant that MEBAA would continue to try to build bridges with it. “I would say 90-95 percent of [its] business aircraft movements are government or government-related, such as royal, VIP or head-of-state families. Although they announced the acquisition of several aircraft recently, they are not in cooperation with us. We hope to open some doors with them… in the future.”
In addition to his MEBAA role, Alnaqbi continues to serve as chairman of the governing board of the International Business Aviation Council (IBAC), a position he is expected to hold until the end of 2022.
Gray market charter continues to be an area of considerable concern in the Middle East, as elsewhere. At least seven associations around the world, led by IBAC, launched the Air Charter Safety Alliance last December to warn governments and the industry of the persistent threat it poses to safe private travel.
“We have to educate people,” said Alnaqbi. “We have to raise awareness of how dangerous this is, not just to alert the industry, but all participants, especially passengers. Each business association around the world was in contact with government to implement effective oversight. The plan is to adopt a global procedure making it easier to report and capture information on cases of illegal gray market charter [flights], and [clarify] the steps to be taken in cases of infringement.”
Alnaqbi maintained that the number of accidents in the Gulf Cooperation Council states has been negligible. “There's a reason for that: there are a lot of solid new aircraft flying around the region. They are not that old,” he stated.
Meanwhile, the industry is looking to the MEBAA Show in Dubai in December 2022 to further restore confidence. Alnaqbi said MEBAA Morocco event could next take place in 2023 after this year's scheduled event was canceled. He added that conferences in Jordan, Tunisia, and Saudi Arabia would continue as soon as possible, as there had been good demand for them before the pandemic.