Region sets pace in air travel growth after last year's lull

Demand for air travel grows almost three times faster in the Middle East last month than the global average of 9.5 per cent.

Middle East residents are again going on holiday after a quiet period last year punctuated by the swine flu outbreak and the global economic crisis. Demand for air travel grew almost three times faster in the Middle East last month than the global average of 9.5 per cent, helped by a rise in intra-regional tourism, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) said. "Middle Eastern airlines recorded traffic growth of 25.8 per cent, the strongest of any region," IATA said yesterday.

"Travel markets continue to develop within the region, creating new demand." Asim Arshad, the chief executive of GlobalStar Travel Management in Dubai, said the differences between this year and last were striking. "Last year, there were last-minute cancellations that came in and people pulled out," he said, attributing the abrupt cancellations to fears over the global swine flu pandemic. "This year, people are not concerned about it."

He said demand out of Abu Dhabi was recording "phenomenal growth", while Dubai was "steadying up", adding that the traditional holiday destinations of Australia, Thailand and Malaysia were already attracting summer bookings. Budget airlines are helping to develop the intra-regional market, including flydubai, which launched services to Muscat and Kuwait this week. But IATA said the regional growth was also due to the continued expansion by long-haul airlines based in the region, such as Qatar Airways, Etihad Airways and Emirates Airline, which have kept aircraft flying and even expanded their fleets during the downturn, thus helping them expand market share.

"Successful competition of long-haul connections to Asia over Middle Eastern hubs has improved market share for the region's carriers," it said. But the industry group cautioned that the airline industry had still not recovered from the downturn. "These are strong gains, but it must be noted that February 2009 marked the bottom of the cycle for passenger traffic during the global economic recession," it said.

"Passenger demand must recover by a further 1.4 per cent to return to pre-crisis levels." IATA, which gathers data from its member airlines as well as from airports, said the second strongest performers were airlines in the Asia-Pacific region, where demand rose 13.5 per cent, which was partly boosted by the Lunar New Year holiday in the middle of the month. African carriers also benefited from local economic expansion, as their demand increased 9.8 per cent, while the slowest gainers were in North America and Europe, growing 4.4 per cent and 4.5 per cent respectively.

In North America, "consumers continue to pay down debt rather than increase spending, keeping demand for air travel comparatively weak", IATA said.