Indian budget airline SpiceJet will open its first international hub in Ras Al Khaimah, where it also plans to set up a new
airline, and expressed confidence in Boeing’s 737 Max re-certification by early 2020.
SpiceJet will start with flights between New Delhi and RAK in December using Boeing 737 Next-Generation aircraft, said Ajay Singh, chairman and managing director of SpiceJet. It will later place up to five 737 jets in the emirate to capture travel demand between India and Europe through RAK.
“The indications from Boeing to us are they expect the 737 Max re-certification by the end of this year or the beginning of next year, we’re very hopeful that can happen,” Mr Singh said.
SpiceJet is one of the biggest 737 customers with as many as 205 planes on order, plus options. The best-selling aircraft was grounded globally in March following two fatal crashes and Boeing is working on a software fix.
The financial impact on the airline from grounding its fleet of 13 Max jets has "been very bad, no question about it", Mr Singh said.
SpiceJet, India’s second biggest airline, had to fly the older 737-NG model, which has a higher cost and shorter range, halting the company’s expansion into markets within the longer range of the Max.
“There has been severe consequences but these things happen in aviation and we have to ride through the storm,” he said.
SpiceJet pilots have flown on the 737 simulator to test the software upgrades and are "happy" with the results of Boeing's progress.
"I think they have their act in order now," Mr Singh said. "Once it's certified, it has to be the safest aircraft to ever fly with this kind of scrutiny that it's going through right now."
The airline is still committed to its Max orders but is continuing discussions with Boeing's European rival Airbus for the A321LR and A321XLR narrowbody longer-range models, he added.
“We need to have alternatives but our first choice is to see that Max comes back and that we get to fly [it]”, he said. “Boeing has been a long-term partner for us, we don’t lightly let go of partners … the grounding is much longer than earlier anticipated but we think we owe it to Boeing to support them at this time.”
SpiceJet spoke with Boeing's new jetliner chief Stan Deal, who was hopeful on the plane's return after technical work, Mr Singh told The National at the press conference in RAK.
Mr Singh expects the US regulator to recertify the plane by December and for other regulators to align their approvals in another two months. UAE and Indian regulators said they would conduct their own safety checks of the Max.
Meanwhile, in the UAE, SpiceJet has applied for certification to establish a new airline in RAK, where Air Arabia operates a hub, and expects a response in three-to-six months.
If approved, this would be the sixth airline registered in the UAE following Etihad Airways and Air Arabia’s plans to jointly set up a budget airline in the capital Abu Dhabi.
SpiceJet is seeking to capture travel demand from RAK’s Indian diaspora, European tourists visiting the emirate and Indian travellers heading to Europe.
“Airports in India are getting quite congested and with a large number of aircraft coming in we need to look at possibilities, starting with our neighbouring region,” he said.
SpiceJet considered other regional airports before picking RAK for its proximity to India, the Arabian Gulf and North Africa as well as untapped growth. The airline is targeting destinations in western and eastern Europe that feed tourism traffic into the northern emirate and allow Indian travellers to fly further into Europe.
“We think there is tremendous potential in this space, RAK is a hidden jewel” Mr Singh said. “RAK becomes a stepping stone for us into European destinations.”
Under the partnership, SpiceJet will expand its freighter operations and explore opportunities in aircraft maintenance and repairs.
RAK is seeking to grow its tourism sector, targeting 2.5 million visitors over the next five years from a million currently, said Sheikh Khalid Bin Saud Al Qasimi, vice chairman of RAK’s Investment and Development Office.