Flying first class on a budget - Emirates24|7

Flying first class on a budget

Even Singapore is trying to rope in more budget carriers to use its new terminal at Changi Airport specifically catering to low-cost airlines. (AFP)

They might be facing rising fuel costs and a falling dollar, which is threatening to severely affect world passenger traffic, but some low-cost airlines flying into the UAE are reiterating that in the face of such adversities, there will be no compromise on the quality of services.

"The low-cost carrier business model does not mean any lowering of quality on the services or safety provided. It is simply a business model that enables airlines to control costs by following smart business practices and thus provide lower fares," says Housam Raydan, Air Arabia corporate communication manager.

The emphasis on service quality comes after a report published by the European Commission – the executive body of the European Union – early this month, which rebuked some leading airlines and travel operators belonging to the 27-member countries for "ripping off, misleading and confusing" online consumers.

Commenting on the study, the governing body also said that "consumers buying air tickets online still face serious and persistent problems". Of the 386 websites surveyed, 137 were penalised as part of a systematic check carried out in different EU countries to investigate breaches in consumer law.

Meanwhile, in the Middle East, where budget airlines are a relatively new – and growing – concept, operators say there are quality checks to ensure that low-cost airlines are not stereotyped as having deficient quality control systems.

"Our strong customer retention and satisfaction show that customers have been extremely satisfied with the level of service they have received," says Raydan.

"We routinely survey our customers after flights as well as through transparent, customer-driven campaigns that we do every once in a while.

"Independent passenger surveys carried out by Skytrax Research named us the best low-cost carrier in the Middle East. So we are quite confident that our passengers are happy, and we always aim to keep them so."

Air Arabia's closest competitor, Kuwait-owned Jazeera Airways, is also increasing its routes across the region.

"People fly Jazeera Airways because they appreciate the quality we offer, the new aircraft, the leather seats, and the reliability and peace of mind they get from knowing our on-time performance, and of course our low fares," says Fawaz Al Sirri, the company's communications manager.

"We conduct random quality and customer satisfaction surveys on board and during check-in and we keep a check on our processes through retaining our strong commitment to our track record, our customers and our reputation."

The aviation industry in other parts of world however is not making merry right now. Airbus SAS, the world's largest plane manufacturer announced this week that orders for its A380 superjumbo may be one-third lower than previously predicted as higher fuel costs and an economic slowdown dent demand for travel.

Other leading airlines are also cutting routes and increasing ticket surcharges to make their businesses stay afloat, while some of the biggest names in aviation are showing off their latest products and fuel-efficient aircrafts at the ongoing Berlin Air Show in Germany. Airlines are also pulling out all the stops to reduce their loads with the adoption of lightweight aircrafts to minimise fuel costs. But despite the gloom hanging over the aviation industry, thanks to record-breaking jet fuel prices, the region's leading budget airlines say they are confident of their growth and expansion.

"It is a volatile market for the world's aircraft industry but we have managed to have substantial profits and growth," says Air Arabia's Raydan. "We intend to expand further into North Africa and Europe through our up coming hub in Morocco."

Jazeera Airways' Al Sirri echoes the same sentiments. "On the back of more aircraft deliveries, we are closer to realising our goal of flying from every city in the Middle East to every city in the Middle East," he says.

And there is more coming. Last March, the Government of Dubai decreed to set up a new low-cost airline, which will operate regionally within the GCC area and surrounding countries. Although it will be initially supported by Emirates, the new airline will have its own brand and identity and will not be a part of the Emirates Group, officials said.

Air Arabia, which was established in 2003, recently established Fly Yeti in Kathmandu, which will also serve UAE destinations among others. Air India Express, a subsidiary of Air India, began its mostly Middle Eastern operations in 2005, while Qatar Airways is mulling over a new low-cost airline. Bahrain Air, another budget airline, began services earlier this year.

Air Arabia's Raydan says the glut of new low-cost carriers to the region will mean customers will have more value for money options to choose from and in turn lead to more market penetration of such airline models.

"We always predicted that more low-cost airlines will follow and we are happy that a successful airline such as Emirates saw the success of our low-cost business model," he says. "We have long believed that the low-cost carrier market here is set to grow simply because the region is growing so fast and we believe this step will complement the needs of travellers in this region. Meanwhile, Airport Show, which is being promoted as the largest airport construction, operations, technology and services exhibition will open for business in the emirates next week.

According to Dubai-based motor industry consultant Fraser Martin, budget airlines in the Middle East are in an special position to lead the way in terms of quality in services.

"If the budget airlines here can come up with excellent service, then the airlines in the West will have to pull their socks up as well. We have seen this in the case of Emirates," he says. "So the low-cost airline industry here has the opportunity to raise the barrier a little bit. But at the end of the day, any airline, whether low-cost or otherwise, has to fulfil the commitment it makes."

The low-cost players

Who's there

1 Air Arabia Established in 2003, this Sharjah-based low-cost airline currently flies to 40 destinations and recently took over the operations of Fly Yeti, based in Kathmandu, Nepal. Flights from Sharjah to Beirut start from as low as Dh1,200 for a return journey.

2 Jazeera Airways Established in 2004, this is the first privately owned Kuwaiti airline in the region and currently operates 25 non-stop routes from its Kuwait and Dubai hubs. A return flight from Dubai to Kuwait starts from Dh761.

3 Air India Express This subsidiary of national carrier Air India began its operations in 2005 and its success encouraged Middle Eastern players to enter the Indian budget airspace. Return flights between Dubai and Thiruvananthapuram start at Dh1,723.

... and who's coming

1 From Dubai Last March, the Government of Dubai issued a decree to set up a new a low-cost airline. Although initially supported by Emirates the airline will have its own brand and identity and will not be a part of the Emirates Group. Ghaith Al Ghaith, the Executive Vice-President of Commercial Operations Worldwide at Emirates has been appointed Chief Executive of the new entity.

2 From Qatar Close on the heels of the announcement by Emirates, Qatar Airways boss Akbar Al Baker recently revealed his company is contemplating to launch its own low-cost airline to fend off competition and said the airline could even begin operations in three months.