Air Arabia plans big for Bangladesh

Air Arabia plans big for Bangladesh :Budget airline Air Arabia plans to increase its presence in Bangladesh as the country offers tremendous growth potential for the aviation industry, said a top official.

“Bangladesh is a very big market for us,” Shalini Rajan, head of sales for Air Arabia, told The Daily Star in an interview in Dhaka recently.

In 2004, Air Arabia opened its office in Chittagong, Bangladesh’s second largest city, and initially operated one flight a day. It started to fly from Dhaka in 2008.

Now the carrier runs six flights a day and 42 flights a week from Dhaka and Chittagong to different parts of the world.

Air Arabia is one of the largest flight operators in Bangladesh in terms of frequency. In Chittagong, it is the largest operator.

“We would like to increase the flight frequency from Chittagong and Dhaka,” said Rajan.

“Whenever there is a new regional airport, Air Arabia would be the first one to operate there. We have done this in many countries.”

She said Air Arabia’s flights have an occupancy rate of more than 90 percent and the business is growing very well.

“Having 42 flights a week here and having a full load of passengers make it a key destination and a country that contributes to the overall revenue of Air Arabia.”

Rajan added that Air Arabia might launch its flight from Sylhet once the airport is ready to operate an Airbus 320, the aircraft the UAE-based company uses in all its routes.

“We are also looking at more possible destinations. We have to look at all the facilities and amenities. They just will have to be Airbus 320 compatible.”

Rajan said the carrier’s business is growing well and in a diversified manner in Bangladesh, as it focuses on all segments of travellers, instead of migrant workers alone.

Air Arabia ran campaigns in the last five months to attract travellers from Bangladesh to the airline’s other destinations such as Cairo, Istanbul and Moscow. The campaign paid off with a rise in the number of passengers thanks to its affordable prices.

“There is untapped potential in this market. We think if we can target passengers in a correct way and offer affordable prices, people are willing to fly with us.”

Air Arabia’s capacity from Dhaka grew more than 6 percent last year while the number of passengers went up by 11 percent. It has 420 aircraft and six of them are dedicated for Bangladesh.

Air Arabia is the Middle East and North Africa’s first and largest low-cost carrier. It flies to 115 destinations spread across the Middle East, North Africa, Asia and Europe.

Rajan began her career in 1998 after she joined KLM Royal Dutch Airlines. Six years later, she moved to Air Arabia as a sales manager. She worked with the UAE airline in different positions before becoming its head of sales in January this year.

Since then, she has been visiting different destinations to see the way distribution and sales are done in every station, and meet government officials and civil aviation authorities.

The initiative brought her to Dhaka on June 26 on a two-day visit. She met civil aviation authorities here as well.

Rajan said she was briefed on the future growth potential and the government’s plans. “The new aerobridges are coming in and extra facilities are being put in place. The flyovers and planned metro rail would make the airport more accessible.”

She said the airport is going to grow three-fold in terms of aerobridges, facilities and management, and as a result, Dhaka will be in a different league by 2020.

Rajan is optimistic about the country’s growth potential, thanks to a sound macroeconomy and the government’s emphasis on completing major infrastructure projects such as the metro rail and hospitality projects.

Air Arabia has grown at a healthy pace in the last nine years, said Rajan, without giving any specific numbers.

She said the company looks forward to increasing its air traffic and expand its network.

Passengers here are served through only Chittagong and Dhaka although the population is spread, compelling people living elsewhere to take trains and buses to reach the two cities and then board their planes.

When asked whether Air Arabia would make Bangladesh one of its hubs, she said, “Currently we are focusing on our newest hub in Amman, Jordan and working towards making that a successful hub like the rest of its hubs. After making those successful, Air Arabia will be able to look for other growth areas.”

Air Arabia is one of the most profitable airlines in the gulf region, earning 531 million dirhams in 2015. “It is a healthy profit for an airline.”

Air Arabia has only economy class, and it has removed six rows so travellers can have the most spacious legroom compared to any other economy class.

She said passengers can buy food whenever they want and the prices are very low, starting from $1.1 to $10. “We are cost effective and we pass the savings onto the passengers.”

Talking about the global aviation industry, she said the passenger numbers have gone up and all the airlines are showing growth in passengers, but the revenue has gone down caused by a fall in overall fare.

The falling oil price came as a boon for the aviation industry as cost of fuel is a major factor. But Rajan said a lot of airports have increased airport taxes, transit taxes and business passenger handling taxes.

That has not stopped Air Arabia from expanding their networks. This year, it launched operations in Bosnia and Jordan, and the airline plans to add more destinations.

Globally, the airline carried more than 7.6 million passengers in 2015, 12 percent more than the previous year, and filled an average of 76 percent of all seats.

Rajan said the aviation industry in Bangladesh is overcoming all the challenges it confronts. “It now has a clear vision. People in the sector are efficient and professional. That gives a positive image to airlines like us.”

She said a lot of people are travelling to Doha now. “Every aircraft to and from Bangladesh is almost full, which shows the overall situation in the local aviation industry.”

Air Arabia plans to open a school for disadvantaged children in Fatikchhari of Chittagong as part its corporate social responsibility. Children will get free books, uniforms and other educational materials.

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