Middle East airlines say Israel-Gaza war affecting travel bookings

Carriers are grappling with higher fuel costs, expensive flight diversions and drop in tourist arrivals, executives say

Planes belonging to Royal Jordanian and other airlines park at Queen Alia International Airport in Amman. Reuters
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Airlines in the Middle East have said that the Israel-Gaza war has led to a drop in air travel to the region, as the conflict rages on amid international calls to halt the fighting to ease the humanitarian disaster in the enclave.

The ongoing conflict was at the top of the agenda when a panel of airline executives spoke on Tuesday at the Arab Air Carriers Organisation's 56th annual meeting, held this year in Saudi Arabia.

Asked about the operational difficulties of running an airline during a neighbouring conflict, Samer Al Majali, chief executive of Amman-based Royal Jordanian, outlined costly flight diversions for security reasons, steep fuel bills and a drop in international visitors.

“We are the closest country now to this recent event and we're quite negatively affected by all that's going on,” he said.

We are the closest country now to this recent event and we're quite negatively affected by all that's going on
Samer Al Majali, chief executive, Royal Jordanian

“Flying westbound is difficult at the moment, even though the airspace is open, but we can't fly due to security considerations. The north is also an issue. Jordan is quite hemmed in.

“Most of our flights have to go south, down to the Red Sea, across the Sinai and then north into Egypt and then up to Europe.

“It's quite a big dog-leg, costing us much more in terms of fuel. Fuel prices have gone up because of the crisis. And we've seen a major drop in tourism. Jordan relies very heavily on tourism and we’ve seen major reservations drop.”

Tickets to Jordan have decreased by 49 per cent year on year, according to data by travel analysis firm ForwardKeys. Destinations in Jordan such as Petra have long been popular with tourists, who sometimes travel to Israel and add sights in Jordan as part of packaged tours.

The conflict has pushed up oil prices, which could rise to $157 a barrel in the near term if an escalation results in a big crude supply disruption in the Middle East, the World Bank has said.

In a “large disruption” scenario, comparable to the Arab oil embargo of 1973, global supply would shrink by 6 million to 8 million barrels per day, driving up prices to a range of $140 to $157 a barrel, the lender said in its latest Commodity Markets Outlook this week.

Highlighting the Iraq wars, the Arab uprisings, the fight against ISIS in northern Syria, the Ukraine war and most recently the Israel-Gaza conflict, Mr Al Majali said: “We built up a lot of experience dealing with these issues.”

Israel and Hamas fighters engage in 'fierce battle' in Gaza

Israel and Hamas fighters engage in 'fierce battle' in Gaza

Meanwhile, Morocco's Royal Air Maroc has cancelled its flights to and from Tel Aviv's Ben Gurion Airport until December 31, according to its website.

The Casablanca-based airline was hit by the impact of the Israel-Gaza war weeks after Morocco was struck by its deadliest earthquake in more than 60 years.

“We have suffered a lot during the earthquake. We found out that globally travellers come back easier after a natural disaster than after a war or [act of] terrorism,” said Abdelhamid Addou, chief executive of Royal Air Maroc.

“It took a couple of weeks to get back to normal after the earthquake, but that's not the case now with what is happening … it will take longer.

“We have nearly one million Jewish Moroccans living in Israel but we had to stop operations between the two countries … we have seen a drop for all the connecting flights to the region.

“Our business is to connect people and bring them together and any time there's such a crisis, we cannot do our work properly.”

Emirates has suspended all its flights to and from Tel Aviv until November 14 and is “closely monitoring the situation in Israel”, remaining in “close contact” with the relevant authorities, according to its website.

Emirates' chief operating officer Adel Al Redha said that within the airline's global network of more than 130 destinations, there are “some pockets of the market slightly impacted, mainly from the Far East, but the majority of the network is holding up quite well”.

The Dubai-based long-haul airline is recording average load factors of above 80 per cent across its route network, “which is quite a good load factor to operate within this environment”, Mr Al Redha said.

“While we don't wish for any conflict, we are used to being able to adapt our operations and mitigate every risk that we're facing by specific measures to protect our operations and the safety of our passengers.”

Aircraft orders

Saudi Arabia's start-up airline Riyadh Air, which is set to begin operations in 2025, will have an agile approach to deal with disasters, from wars to volcanic eruptions, according to its chief executive Tony Douglas.

“The only constant in our line of business is ambiguity. The trick to ambiguity is to embrace it because you can't predict a lot of things that are going to happen.”

Riyadh Air will unveil a second aircraft livery at the Dubai Airshow in November and “hopefully there will be a narrow-body order soon”, Mr Douglas said.

The executive teased a new plane order two weeks before the air show, where plane makers will vie to announce the highest number of commercial jet deals.

Mr Douglas told The National in June that discussions are under way with Boeing and Airbus over the order of narrow-body aircraft as it builds a large fleet from scratch to serve 100 destinations by 2030.

The airline is considering Boeing 737 Max and Airbus A320 Neo but a decision has yet to be made, he said at the time. Riyadh Air placed its first aircraft order in March for 39 Boeing 787 wide-body planes, with options for 33 more, to handle long-haul flights.

Saudi Arabia's Riyadh Air plans new orders ahead of 2025 take-off

Saudi Arabia's Riyadh Air plans new orders ahead of 2025 take-off

Travel outlook

The AACO, at its annual meeting, also released its state of the industry report.

The total number of air passengers in 2023 in the Arab region is expected to reach 300 million, of which 277 million are international travellers, it said.

AACO member airlines are likely to return to pre-Covid levels of passenger traffic in 2024, according to Abdul Wahab Tefaha, its secretary general.

Reaching sustainability goals was at the forefront of discussions between airline executives at the gathering this year.

Executives agreed that the industry goal of net zero by 2050 was doable, but only at a steep cost as sustainable aviation fuel remains limited in supply and expensive to buy.

They called on governments to incentivise the production of SAF in larger quantities, thereby bringing down the cost for airlines.

International Air Transport Association estimates that SAF will contribute to 62 per cent of the industry's decarbonisation needs.

“Airlines have already sent a huge demand signal to encourage the needed diversification of investments in SAF production,” Willie Walsh, director general of Iata, said in a speech at the AACO meeting.

“Even though prices are two to three times higher than jet kerosene, every drop of SAF available in 2022 was purchased, at a cost of almost $500 million. The same will be true for 2023.”

Updated: November 01, 2023, 8:34 AM