Fresh from the abandonment of the Middle East Business Aviation Association Show in Dubai in February, two months after its originally planned slot, and with no prospect of the event taking place until its routine timing in the international show calendar in December, MEBAA founding and executive chairman, Ali Alnaqbi, expresses worries that are common up and down the industry today.
“It is very challenging, no doubt about it,” he told AIN in a February interview. “As far as the show is concerned, it will go back to normal at the right time. We don't know when [that] will be. It could be in a year. It could be in two years. No one can predict anything. We were hoping 2021 would be better. It wasn't. It's actually going in the other direction.
“The reality was that we could not hang on, and keep people waiting. We made the decision and the comments I received were: ‘Yes, it's very tough, but it's the right decision.’ We are pleased.”
As chairman of the International Business Aviation Council (IBAC), Alnaqbi has twin roles, both region-based, and international. In either role, he is keen for any event to take place, just so the industry can keep talking.
“It is a bit too early to predict the situation in the U.S. On EBACE, as chairman of IBAC, I hope that we get together; we need an event to take place, so I hope EBACE goes ahead, although all the indications are that it's getting difficult. NBAA is in the same situation.
“I would love to see a show for our industry because we need to generate confidence by sending a strong message to people on the ground. However, in the U.S., it's not getting better; Europe is closing down. We don't know if we are in a position to make any promises. I think we just have to wait.”
Despite a scheduled position in the calendar in the third quarter of this year, Alnaqbi said he had made no announcements on a MEBAA Morocco show in Marrakech. Regular events in Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Tunisia have also recently been scrapped and are unlikely to return for some time.
With Expo 2020 in Dubai in the offing for October, anticipation is building that late 2021 will see emergence from all-encompassing Covid-19 restrictions worldwide. Dubai has a lot riding on this. “We are hoping Dubai Airshow goes head; that is what we are really hoping for,” Alnaqbi said.
The existential crisis facing the industry has been more marked in commercial aviation than the bizav sector, with some Middle East-based FBOs reporting a marked business uptick in the second half of 2020. Stakeholders like OEMs Boeing, Airbus, Gulfstream, and Dassault were also better placed, he said.
“We are worried about our industry, but, like any other, we have to be part of the global community, and wait and see. As long as companies survive, they are doing OK. Companies with deep pockets can survive the slowdown without real business. My concern is with the smaller companies.”
He cited a nascent one-aircraft regional charter operator that had struggled to get off the ground for the past three years. “Companies like these are our concern, to be honest. Let's hope for the best.”
On business aviation flights, Alnaqbi said the problem was not operations or handling, but countries closing down their airspace. He noted that movements were idled in Saudi Arabia and that several European countries were barring access or changing rules on a frequent basis. Oversight had moved from the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) to states themselves or even health ministries.
Echoing developments at Jetex’s Dubai South FBO, he said first-class passengers were migrating to bizav when they were able to fly. “Our industry is more flexible than the airlines,” he said. “But if the borders remain closed, we are in the same boat as the airlines.”
Alnaqbi said the situation was difficult for everyone, with some job losses involved. Bizav operators, including ground handlers, FBOs and flight support companies, were “suffering, but surviving,” some by devoting increasing attention to cargo operators. “Most of them are doing flight scheduling for cargo,” he said. “Even with the closure of airspace, cargo aircraft are in continuous operation.”
In Saudi Arabia, he said the government was pressing ahead with plans for a complete aviation revamp, despite the pandemic. “It has put a lot of business aviation flying on the ground. The political element, reforming and reengineering the whole aviation industry, the airports, the airlines, as well as business aviation—in many areas, business aviation is government-run—means that there’s a lot now happening.
“Some companies will shrink, while others will come on in in a different format. They're all doing a lot of promotion now, but I don't know exactly what's going to happen.”
Alnaqbi said sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) development efforts fared well in 2018-19, but had stuttered during the pandemic. “[Work is driven mainly by business aviation associations in] the U.S. and Europe,” he said. “That's helped in many areas. We are also opening dialogue with local oil producers here in the Middle East on SAF production for our aircraft or for airlines.”