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Sun 26 Mar 2006 04:00 AM

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Out of this world

Next week is going to be ‘Virgin week’ with the arrival of Sir Richard Branson in Dubai, officially to launch the first Virgin Atlantic flight between London and Dubai.

|~||~||~|Next week is going to be ‘Virgin week’ with the arrival of Sir Richard Branson in Dubai, officially to launch the first Virgin Atlantic flight between London and Dubai. But while most of the hype surrounds the plane’s touchdown at 7.10am on Tuesday, I can reveal that the real action is set for Wednesday. At 3.15pm, at Emirates Towers, my sources tell me that the tycoon will unveil the first UAE astronaut who has signed up to fly on Virgin Galactic.

In case you hadn’t heard, Virgin Galactic is the first commercial space initiative, with passengers paying US$200,000 for the privilege of traveling into orbit. So far, 38,700 customers have paid up the US$20,000 deposit required, and the first flight takes off from New Mexico in 2008. The Virgin spacecraft will fly 60 miles into the sky for three hours, with up to six passengers at a time experiencing 20 minutes in space.

But, I am told, one of the lucky 38,700 is from the UAE. Who could it be? Rumours have been flying around that Emaar boss Mohammed Alabbar (pictured right) is a contender (there is an obvious joke here to be made about Emaar shares needing lift off, but I won’t make it). Both Alabbar and Branson hooked up at the Abu Dhabi Leadership Summit last November, where the idea was first mooted. Another contender is former rally driver Mohamed bin Sulaymen. Branson will give details of plans to build a space hub in the GCC, at a cost of around US$180 million.

Purchasing power

While Virgin Atlantic may steal the limelight this week, Emirates Airline chairman Sheikh Ahmed also has a lot to be pleased about. Last year, he managed to persuade Airbus to modify the design of its A350 planes, purely to suit Emirates. Airbus duly obliged in the hope of picking up 40 new orders, even though the modifications cost US$1 billion. Now, word reaches me, Sheikh Ahmed has pulled off a similar stunt with Boeing. Emirates has been pushing for changes to Boeing’s new Dreamliner 777, and it appears it has succeeded. Again, the cost of these changes will near US$1 billion, but Boeing thinks they will be well worth it, given the potential for new orders.

Cheap trick

Still on airlines, spare a thought for the region’s low cost carriers, who despite being officially welcomed by governments in the GCC, are finding every step forward harder than the one before. I understand that the Qatar Civil Aviation Authority is to introduce a 15% cap on the difference in fares between traditional carriers and low-cost start-ups.

Once you allow for discounts provided by the likes of Qatar Airways and Gulf Air, it means there would be practically no difference in the fares, and essentially no need for low cost carriers anymore. Sounds to me like a very clever way of putting them out of business.

Do the maths

I revealed last week that another 2000 tickets will be put on sale for the Robbie Williams concert in Dubai on April 21st, just two days before the show. This is basically being done to beat the touts, who are already charging ten times the tickets’ face value.

But my friends at Virgin Megastore — one of the sales outlets — tell me I may have underestimated this. The official word is that all 23,000 tickets sold out in four hours. But simple arithmetic, given the fact there were only four cashiers at each of the three sales outlets, tells you this just isn’t possible. At best, 4000 tickets were sold, plus another 2000 online.

So what happened to the rest? Could it be that Midas Promotions needs to recoup the US$1 million it is paying Williams to perform in Dubai? And the easy way to do this would be to put on 17,000 new tickets the week before the show, at twice the price? Of course, officially, only 2000 tickets would be put on sale. The mystery deepens.||**||

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