Author:Smith, Dexter Jerome

It is surprising -- given the diversity, wealth and economic importance of the region and the absence of an effective road and rail infrastructure -- that the Middle East has not got a regional airline network to speak of Some analysts say this deficiency will act as an inhibitor to future growth and prosperity

This situation is particularly true of the Gulf states. It can be surprisingly difficult to arrange flights between the regional capitals, despite the region being open to several dozen international airlines and most states operating their own national carriers as well.

Flights are timed to suit the convenience of the world's major airlines and the schedules of their long-haul international flights that, in many cases, just pass through the region, observes Jeff Marsh, Senior Vice-President of Sales and Marketing for the European joint venture regional aircraft manufacturers Aero International Regional (AIR).

The problem, he and others say, could be overcome if an Open Skies policy was adopted, abrogating bilateral agreements limiting access to air corridors and airport facilities. Such bilateral agreements often have the effect of propping up inefficient national carriers, shielding them from competition, while guaranteeing a certain proportion of landing and take-off slots.

Not surprisingly, financially struggling airlines and the governments responsible for them in the case of national carriers, tend to oppose an Open Skies policy. However, the pressure in favour of adopting Open Skies is gaining ground; Jordan's Prince Faisal Bin Al Hussein, a director of Royal Wings -- the regional airline subsidiary of the national carrier, Royal Jordanian -- has particularly championed this policy for regional aircraft at a maximum size of 80-seats. Clearly, large planes being flown more than half empty are not cost efficient, which might help explain why so many of the region's national carriers are in the red and have all but indefinitely postponed plans for their privatisation or partial sale. Of the airlines of the Gulf Co-operation Council states, only Emirates and Saudi Arabian Airlines are generating healthy profits; Gulf Air is beginning to break-even, while Qatar Airways, Oman Air...

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