Low-cost Middle East

easyjettailfinExpect a price war on flights to the Middle East this winter. On 2nd November, easyJet launches a new route from Luton to Tel Aviv, joining a host of airlines including BA, bmi, El Al, Thomson and jet2 flying between the UK and Israel.

More significantly, the highly successful UAE-based low-cost carrier Air Arabia has announced that by the end of 2009 it will be launching a new airline, Air Arabia Egypt, to link several Egyptian airports with destinations in the Gulf, North Africa, Europe and the UK.

The Israel example shows the power of what the airline industry calls VFR – ‘visiting friends and relatives’. Despite the political problems, tourism to Israel has always remained buoyant, fed by special-interest religious tours in particular – but fuelled above all by VFR, especially from areas with a high Jewish population. In the UK that means, firstly, north London: even before easyJet’s launch, El Al is the only full-service national flag carrier able to maintain regular near-daily scheduled service out of Luton (and, previously, out of Stansted), in addition to its twice-daily Heathrow service. Another key VFR origin is Manchester, from where jet2 launched nonstop Tel Aviv flights in January 2009 – shortly afterwards announcing that it was doubling its peak service.

VFR out of the UK to most other Middle Eastern destinations isn’t as strong – there just aren’t that many expat Jordanians and Syrians in Britain. Air Arabia, though, has already proved that VFR works: in April 2009 it launched Air Arabia Maroc, a low-cost carrier which today links Casablanca with a clutch of francophone cities in western Europe (alongside London, Milan and elsewhere).

Its new venture, Air Arabia Egypt, on the other hand, is squarely targeting the leisure market, with multiple bases in Egypt serving different markets: Cairo and Alexandria will no doubt benefit from expanded links to Africa and the Gulf (where the large numbers of Egyptian expats brings VFR into play again), while Luxor, Sharm El-Sheikh and Hurghada will likely attract service chiefly from northern and western Europe. The three Air Arabias will also, no doubt, link up, making it possible to fly in a series of hops from the Atlantic to the Bay of Bengal, low-cost all the way.

Ryanair CEO Michael O'Leary

Ryanair CEO Michael O’Leary

The new venture also kick-starts a fascinating contest. easyJet, a pioneer of low-cost travel in Europe, already serves Egyptian holiday airports such as Sharm and Hurghada from the UK. It will, it seems, soon have to compete with Air Arabia, a pioneer of low-cost travel in the Middle East. Two highly successful carriers from different parts of the globe are about to meet head-to-head. Be sure that Ryanair will be watching closely.

Beside all of this, the Gulf (although aided by market protection) is able to support six more low-cost carriers – Sama, Nas, Felix, Bahrain Air, FlyDubai and Jazeera. The last of these has announced that it is searching for a new regional hub. Will it be Beirut? Istanbul? Perhaps Athens?

As Middle East airlines start reaching out towards Europe, expect an ever-intensifying clash of low-cost cultures in the months ahead.