By John Irish
New no frills airline plans a September start, but very little is known about it.
The airline industry may be going through the most difficult period in its history, but the low cost sector is booming. In May, the announcement that MenaJet was set to become the first ‘no frills’ airline in the region wetted the appetite of many Middle Eastern air travellers tired of forking out for exorbitantly priced plane tickets.Now, however, a new low cost player has thrown its hat into the ring, saying that it will begin operating from September. But who is this newcomer? In June, a press release from Airbus began circulating. TransGulf Express, a Sharjah based low cost carrier, had leased three 180-seat Airbus A320s with a further three expected to arrive by the end of the year. That, however was it. MenaJet’s arrival was marked with a high-profile press conference at the Arabian Travel Market, a media savvy general manager and two high profile Gulf backers announcing that it would begin operating in December. TransGulf Express, however, entered the fray rather more quietly.Finding out more about the airline proved to be difficult, but Arabian Business eventually tracked down Kaiser Helman, who is a 35% shareholder in the venture.“It’s not easy to put an airline company in place. It’s not my first airline company; it’s my second,” Helman told Arabian Business. “I’m a former airline pilot and am qualified [to fly] a Boeing 727, 737, 767. We are in the hospitality business and it’s more a pleasure and a challenge than just investing in a project.”Helman’s plans for TransGulf Express are seemingly much more ambitious than those of his rival at MenaJet. While MenaJet is leasing just two planes and focusing on the pan-Arab market, TransGulf is planning to use its three to six planes to fly from Sharjah to India and Pakistan. It is also planning daily flights to Beirut and Alexandria, as well as services to Damascus and Amman.“We visited the different airports, we agreed with the different handling companies and things are done. We are going to start in the first week of September. We have all our team, all our pilots, all our mechanics and all our engineers. We are working with the civil aviation authorities,” explained Helman.Despite these ambitious goals, TransGulf’s startup capital is just US $10 million. In comparison, MenaJet has US $50 million worth of financial backing from the Bahrain-based Gulf Finance House and the Saudi-based Al Zamil group. Furthermore, while Helman stresses that 11 months of preparation has gone into the project, as of yet, the application process to enable it to fly out of Sharjah does not appear complete.Neither the Sharjah Department of Civil Aviation (SDCA), nor the UAE’s General Civil Aviation Authority (GCAA) were able to confirm whether all the regulatory and safety criteria had been fulfilled, let alone whether the airline could take off in September.“In the UAE, you have the local and federal authorities. You need the approval of both. From a local point of view, we have given TransGulf approval, providing that they fill all the requirements of the GCAA,” said Abdul Wahab Al Roomi, director of the SDCA.At the GCAA, however, an official stressed that while the application was in the pipeline, it was still under investigation. “The process depends on whether the operator can provide the correct international documents. This [process] can range between one month to one year,” he said.From an international perspective, things also appear a little hazy. Abdul Wahab Teffaha, secretary general of the Arab Air Carriers Organisation (AACO), was unable to enlighten us on the new carrier, explaining that other than the news emanating from Airbus, the project was still a mystery to him.So who or what is TransGulf Express? The press knows little about it, the aviation authorities are unsure, but Helman remains positive that TransGulf will successfully replicate the success of Ryanair and Southwest in the expatriate filled Gulf. He also says that the mystery surrounding the unknown backers and its pricing structure will all be lifted later in the summer.“We know our prices, but we can’t mention them at the moment, as there are other airlines in the market. We are going to start our advertising campaign from mid-August. In three weeks time, you will see billboards, it will be on the TV, newspapers, everywhere. We are going to spend $3 million just in advertising,” he says.Whether that $3 million is part of its $10 million start up capital is unclear. However, Helman is keen to stress that he is merely a shareholder in the project and will not be involved in the day to day running of the airline.The general manager will be Robert Thabet, who was unavailable for comment. At this stage, Helman is the face, or rather the name, of TransGulf Express.This is not the first time that Helman has turned his attention to the UAE’s travel and tourism sector. Previously, he announced plans to set up a cruise operation in Dubai. Imperium Cruises was to base two ships in the emirate with a view to operating itineraries to the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean.“We have been researching this project for nearly two years and identified a gap in the cruise market for ships to homeport in Dubai on a year-round basis,” he said at the time. “Traditional cruise regions such as the Caribbean and even the Mediterranean are congested and what we will offer here in terms of itineraries and product is very different from existing operations.”While the idea was a good one, Awadh al Seghayer, acting manger of the Dubai cruise terminal, explained that Imperium had not come to fruition. “They had submitted their request for initial approval and never showed up again,” he told Arabian Business. Helman, however, attributes Imperium’s failure to the downturn in tourism following the events of September 11 and is more confident this time around. MenaJet general manager, Mazen Hajjar, believes that a second no frills airline would be healthy competition for his own operation, but he seems to have his doubts. “They are headed by a gentleman who has been trying to start an airline for a while. He says he has the funding,” says Hajjar.“I spoke to GATX [the aircraft leasing firm]... I talked to everybody else. I have a feeling it’s not going to come through,” he adds.