Rotana drives ahead as a scheduled carrier
The UAE may be geographically small but, as Alan Dron reports, continuing surface travel challenges have led to a local carrier starting domestic air services.
It’s not often that a business jet operator changes course and develops into an airline, but Rotana Jet of Abu Dhabi has recently made the jump.
However, although it started life in 2010 operating executive services with a Gulfstream 450, Rotana Jet had always planned to be a scheduled carrier, said commercial and planning director Rajendran Vellapalath.
Operating executive jet services was seen as a way to get into the aviation business.
From its base at Abu Dhabi’s Al Bateen executive aviation airport, Rotana Jet began operating scheduled services in June 2012 to Sir Bani Yas and Delma islands off the coast of the emirate with two Embraer ERJ-145 regional jets.
This was followed in September with the announcement of domestic services from Abu Dhabi International Airport to Al Ain, Sharjah, Fujairah and Ras Al Khaimah. Fujairah and Al Ain began that month, with Sharjah and Ras Al Khaimah due to follow later. Ruwais is also due to join the route network.
There is, said Vellapalath, an untapped market for internal flights between the UAE’s seven emirates. Although the distances between Abu Dhabi and some of these points are small in geographic terms (around 215km to RAK, for example), driving to Ras Al Khaimah or Fujairah can easily take more than three hours – considerably longer at rush hours.
All these new domestic services are double daily; having both morning and evening rotations was considered important when the services were conceived, said Vellapalath.
Waves of international flights arrive in Abu Dhabi in early morning and Rotana Jet’s morning service is synchronised with them. Similarly, the evening sectors are timed to allow passengers arriving from the outlying emirates to connect with departing late night long-haul services.
At the time of writing, the company was in discussions with the UAE regulatory authorities over creating a small transfer facility to domestic destinations at Abu Dhabi. It was also looking at the possibility of arriving passengers not having to clear immigration and customs formalities until they reached their final destination.
Rotana Jet believes that sufficient people will be willing to abandon cars for aircraft to make the services viable. It will take around 30 minutes to fly to Sharjah, 45 to RAK or Fujairah. A passenger arriving from Europe at, say, 8am, could be resting in his hotel at Fujairah by late morning, saving a couple of hours compared to driving. “For people who have spent six or seven hours on a flight, facing an extra two or three hours on the road to reach their final destination is not great,” said Vellapalath.
He also sees the flights appealing to domestic tourists who want a day-trip to the northern emirates.
Rotana Jet’s owner, Dr Sheikh Ahmed bin Saif Al-Nahyan, a former chairman of Etihad, touched on this at the official announcement of the new services in September, noting “the need to foster development in the tourism industry”.
A third source of passengers is likely to be Abu Dhabi-based UAE federal government staff, who live at the far end of the country.
Rotana Jet will face competition from RAK Airways, which in September announced not only RAK-Abu Dhabi scheduled services but the benefit of a codesharing agreement with UAE national carrier Etihad Airways. (See story page 84).
A similar codesharing arrangement is a development also being studied by Rotana Jet.
However, Vellapallath believed that Rotana Jet’s higher frequency would prove a bigger draw. He also argued that Rotana Jet would have much better economics on the route with its 50-seat ERJ-145s, against RAK’s larger Airbus A320 for its service.
However, the company is not abandoning the charter market. It was due to receive an Airbus A319 in 50-seat configuration (18 business, 32 economy) to help cater for enquiries that come not only from the UAE and GCC nations but also Africa.