Airlines have become the poster boys of Covid-19 casualties. Unsurprisingly, governments across the world have leapt to the aid of their national flag carriers and pledged staggering amounts of cash to try and shield carriers from a $314 billion revenue onslaught.
High profile beneficiaries include the likes of Air-France KLM, various US airlines and Emirates. The major aerospace manufacturers too have been promised direct support. While it is of course comforting to see governments generally viewing airlines as crucial keystones in economies, with the limelight set on airlines there is a risk that business aviation may be forgotten and left out of support packages.
That is the concern of Ali Ahmed Alnaqbi, founding and executive chairman of MEBAA (The Middle East & North Africa Business Aviation Association). He agrees that governments must support airlines in times of crisis but wills them to remember that business aviation is a sector that complements commercial travel.
“We fly to the places airlines cannot reach and help them to extend their reach. We work together with airlines and we would love to be seen as a partner,” Alnaqbi says. “We understand governments supporting the airlines but they cannot ignore our industry because we also play a major role in the economy.”
In recent weeks, Alnaqbi has been lobbying governments to include the business aviation sector within support packages. He first asked MEBAA members to list the challenges they are facing and using the feedback, sent a series of letters to relevant aviation authorities across the MENA region.
“Operators want to be able to start flying as soon as they can. The main concern for them is that they do not want to shut down operations. They want some concessions and support in most areas. They don’t know how long this will go on for and without support we will not be able to go on like this without operators having to think about shutting down.
“Business aviation can restart much quicker than airlines so we must be included in recovery plans. Governments have promised to support both the public and private sector and we want our industry to be included within that.”
Letters requesting support for the business aviation sector have already been sent to the governments of the UAE, Saudi, Morocco, Jordan, Egypt, Tunisia and Bahrain. So far, the response from governments has included a number of discussions and some charges being waived.
In addition to rent deferrals, some airport parking fees have been waived and the concessions are helping the industry to a degree. However, some business aviation firms are facing a serious liquidity crunch, the same as airlines, and have had to send employees on unpaid leave. If support is not stepped up before the crisis ends, the industry could get to the point where companies begin shutting down.
Alnaqbi notes that while discussions are promising and concessions are welcome, there is a need for more robust direct support and greater structure from governments. He would like to see help for employee-related costs so companies can keep staff and a clear structure detailing how governments will support the private sector.
“We are following up with the relevant departments and they are beginning to count business aviation. At the beginning they weren’t but after our pressure they are. They are considering us as an important player because we play an important role in the economy,” Alnaqbi notes.
Business aviation in a post-pandemic world
No one really knows how the airline industry will look after the pandemic has subsided and the same can be said for business aviation. How the industry might look in a post-Covid-19 world is a topic being discussed not just by MEBAA but also the International Business Aviation Council (IBAC). Alnaqbi is very clear about the role he wants business aviation to play in aviation’s recovery.
“We have been key to humanitarian and repatriation operations and will continue to be. We would like to be considered as a priority when we’re allowed to fly again because business aviation is a very light operation. We can turn around very quickly, we can start delivering goods and services and take passengers to places faster than airlines until carriers shape up their plan. We want to be part of the post-pandemic restart operation taskforce.”
The rise of virtual meeting platforms such as Zoom and Microsoft Teams during the pandemic has led some people in to think that the demand for business travel will take a hit even after international borders reopen. Naturally, such an outcome would be harmful to private aviation operators relying on corporations and governments wanting to send employees around the world quickly. But Alnaqbi remains unfazed by the rise of Zoom and co.
“Business will continue to be done face to face. We are not worried about it. It’s a temporary measure during the pandemic that a lot of business is conducted virtually. When IT started to develop many years back, there were concerns that people would not travel but that was proved wrong.
“Face to face meetings will always be better than virtual. I don’t think it will impact us. Business aviation is the fastest way of travelling so I am not really concerned. As soon as the pandemic is over we will have to prepare ourselves to restart the operations.”
Central to business aviation’s recovery will be cooperation between traditional competitors, who must exchange information and advice, says Alnaqbi. Even before the pandemic, Alnaqbi witnessed MEBAA’s members and competitors working together closely. The group gathered for a POC (planning and operations committee) meeting in February where CEOs of various companies in the industry discussed common issues.
Alnaqbi concludes: “The cake is big here and we should not look at it in terms of how big a slice I can get but how can we grow this cake bigger and bigger. This is what we are trying to do and we are trying to implement a code of conduct between members. Competitors have already proved before the pandemic they can work together, which puts business aviation in a strong position for recovery.”