Air travellers should not have to pay for plane delays

Problems with Boeing and Airbus aircraft deliveries mean the travelling public may face higher fares and fewer flight options as a lack of seats meets post-pandemic demand

ABU DHABI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES - August 24, 2008: Travelers with luggage bags at Abu Dhabi International Airport.

( Ryan Carter / The National )

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“Your shipment has been delayed” – five dreaded words almost guaranteed to annoy any paying customer. If one imagines the level of frustration at a day or two’s delay in receiving a new piece of furniture, consider the exasperation that would greet a months-long hold-up for an aircraft worth millions of dollars. This is the situation facing some of the UAE’s biggest airlines, and their patience is wearing thin.

Speaking to The National this week at the Arabian Travel Market in Dubai, Etihad chief executive Antonoaldo Neves said the flag-carrier was experiencing delays ranging from a six months to a year for orders of 15 wide-body and narrow-body aircraft that are a combination of Airbus A350s, A321 Neos and Boeing 787s. Speaking at the same event on Monday, flydubai's chief executive Ghaith Al Ghaith also said he was “very concerned” about continuing aircraft delivery delays by US plane maker Boeing, and Sheikh Ahmed bin Saeed, chief executive of the Emirates Group, said he was unhappy at the uncertainty over delivery dates for Boeing 777X planes that is “putting a lot of pressure” on the airline’s seat capacity.

Ultimately, these delays lead to disruptions for the travelling public, who face fewer options or higher fares as a lack of seats meets surging post-pandemic demand. A lack of capacity would be concerning for the UAE’s booming aviation sector – the country and its airlines act as a hub and global connector for millions of passengers every year. Many people use the routes offered by Etihad and Emirates to travel from Asia to Europe or North America.

The aircraft delivery issue is an unfortunate one because figures show aviation and related sectors in the UAE going from strength to strength. The Arabian Travel Market heard about ambitious plans to attract 130 million tourists annually to the Gulf by the end of the decade, Dubai, the event's host, was ranked first in the Top 100 City Destinations Index 2023 by Euromonitor International and on Friday, Etihad released figures showing the airline posted a nine-fold increase in first-quarter profits as travel demand soars.

And yet, a failure to deliver aircraft on time leaves not only passengers but airlines facing increasing costs. Sheikh Ahmed of Emirates said the airline has had to undertake a multibillion-dollar retrofit programme to upgrade the interiors of older aircraft to keep them in service for longer. UAE airlines are also orientated towards growth, complementing the country’s considerable spend on aviation infrastructure, such as Zayed International Airport’s new terminal and plans for the Dh128 billion ($34.8 billion) new passenger terminal at Al Maktoum International Airport. Persistent delays in receiving new aircraft can complicate these growth plans.

The reasons behind the delays are many and complex. In Boeing’s case, a corporate crisis, a change of management and the deaths of two whistle-blowers who raised safety concerns are unwelcome additions to the global supply-chain problems that are also being experienced by its main rival, Airbus. There are ways to address supply problems: improved communication with customers; digital tools and techniques like lean manufacturing that can optimise production; and making more use of 3D printing and advanced data analytics. For Boeing, however, the challenge to restore its reputation is more difficult.

A failure to address delays could exhaust the patience of customers. Although they are some way behind Boeing and Airbus in terms of capacity and reach, other manufacturers will be watching closely.

Nevertheless, there will be a manufacturing duopoly of Boeing and Airbus for the foreseeable future, making it critical for airlines and passengers that these two companies ensure their customers get their planes on time. This is because international aviation is not a leisure network, it is a vital piece of global infrastructure.

Published: May 10, 2024, 3:00 AM
Updated: May 11, 2024, 2:21 PM