About three months before the first Air Arabia jet left the tarmac at Sharjah airport in October 2003, Adel Ali started feeling a bit nervous.
“Every guy I spoke to in the airline industry said it was impossible to start an airline from scratch in six months,” the group CEO of the airline says. “Everyone said low-cost carriers wouldn’t work in the Middle East. ‘You need to have open skies for this to work in the region, and you don’t have that’, they said.
“Those times were probably my worst times – the lowest point that I reached. Because I hadn’t started the business yet, there was no income and we were burning through the money.”
It says a great deal about Ali – and about Air Arabia – that the Bahraini national’s lowest point during his ten years in charge of the airline was before it had even taken off. In the intervening years, it has become one of the Gulf’s biggest private-sector success stories. It is the first Middle Eastern low-cost carrier and the region’s only publicly listed airline. It has reported nine consecutive years of profit, flies to over 80 destinations and has set up two other hubs in Egypt and Morocco. Its stock is beloved of local investors, rising by over 120 percent in the last year.
A decade ago, of course, there was far less certainty about an airline that was launching from a small airport, and competing against the might of deep-pocketed government-backed carriers. Air Arabia kicked off its operations with just two aircraft flying to five destinations – the only destinations, in fact, for which the carrier was able to secure rights to serve.
“Saudi Arabia wasn’t even part of our original business plan, because we thought it would take years to get in there,” says Ali. “Neither was India. Today we are the biggest operator into both Saudi Arabia and India.
“But I think those countries have seen the benefit that a company like ours can bring; 10 out of the 14 airports in India that we fly to were once domestic airports. We went in there and changed people’s lives, both by creating jobs and allowing them to travel.”
Ali says that he remembers approaching big regional trading firms to represent the airline before its launch.
“They all said no – we don’t deal with low-cost carriers,” he recalls. “Needless to say, two years later they came back and asked us what it would take to become our agent.
“And when we were hiring people in that start-up phase, some of them decided to give up great jobs at very good airlines to come and join us. But not everybody – people like their comfort zone.”
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