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Thu 4 Dec 2008 04:00 AM

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Middle East on bmi's radar

UK carrier has identified the region as a key growth market but knows it has a long way to go before its brand becomes lodged in the minds of local business travellers.

UK carrier bmi has identified the Middle East as a key region for growth as the airline's reputation as a carrier for business travellers gains recognition.

The airline concedes that it has a long way to go in terms of achieving the brand awareness that rival carrier British Airways boasts, but is confident that its product fills a gap in the market as far as value for money and network are concerned.

bmi general manager Middle East and Africa Max Hunt explained that the Middle East was the "only region [in the world] showing growth and buoyancy" and that yields from this market were "holding up".

We operate more direct services to London from the Middle East than any other airline.

"There are plans for new routes in this region, but at the moment we are looking at the aircraft that we have got that can compete as well as our slots utilisation out of Heathrow," he said.

"There is definitely a lot of capacity down here (the Gulf) at the moment. We would be looking at destinations that are maybe a little bit more niche.

"Most of our destinations are business destinations, whether in the Middle East or in Europe - that's why our logo is ‘better for business'. We understand there are a lot of business travellers that need to be served and that's what we are focusing on."

bmi currently operates services to Riyadh, Jeddah, Amman, Beirut, Damascus, Cairo and Tehran.

The airline recently announced plans to double its flights to Riyadh - from three to six weekly - from January 15, 2009.

Services from Heathrow to Riyadh will run every day except Friday and return services from Riyadh to Heathrow will operate daily with the exception of Saturday.

"We are also looking to improve our Jeddah-Heathrow service, which is currently three times weekly," added Hunt.

bmi also has codeshare agreements with Etihad Airways, Qatar Airways and Gulf Air out of their respective hubs.

"We have some good partnerships with these airlines, although they could work better for us," says Hunt.

"That's not pointing the finger but these airlines have their objectives and we have ours."

Hunt stressed that bmi was a "travel-agent friendly" airline that still paid commission in KSA and would continue to do so until all other players had gone to zero in that market.

Rival carrier BA went to 0% in Saudi Arabia a year ago, although the actual impact was minimal because the airline is currently offline in this market.

Hunt said his current strategy was to reorganise bmi's GSA structure in the Gulf.

"We have appointed Kanoo Travel in the UAE, Oman and Qatar and re-organised the GSA structure in Saudi Arabia," he explained.

"Kanoo is looking after the western and eastern provinces and National Flights Services (NFS) is representing us in the central province. We are working with Alshamel in Kuwait and Jordan and our Bahrain GSA is to be confirmed.

"I want our team to get to grips with our customer database, which essentially is the travel trade and we are also looking at corporate opportunities that come our way."

Hunt conceded that in terms of brand recognition, compared to BA, bmi had a long way to go.

"If you look at it as a mile race we are in the first hundred metres," he said.

"But what is interesting is that recent research conducted in Saudi Arabia revealed that people are starting to recognise our brand and they realise that after three years in the Saudi market, we are here to stay.

"We want to be seen as bmi and not ‘the other airline'. It's all part of having the right GSAs in place and having the right people on the ground that can really pad the streets and do the talking."

In terms of unique selling points, Hunt said bmi offered great value for money fares, a really good business class product - chefs on board and flatbeds - and also its terminal 1 facility at Heathrow.

"BA moving out of Terminal 1 has been a big plus for us," he said.

"We have United [Airlines] in there at the moment, which helps when it comes to our codeshare with them on flights going to the US - it means our passengers don't have to switch terminals."

Hunt also stressed that bmi was not a new airline - it has been in business for 70 years.

"Not only that, we operate more direct London services from the Middle East than any other airline - almost 50 flights per week."

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