Ian Goold/JEDDAH

Middle Eastern airlines, although widely split on liberalisation, are coming under increasing pressure to support a local deregulation effort, with the Arab Air Carriers Organisation (AACO) establishing a task force to consider open skies and liberalisation issues.

The lack of regional liberalisation has started to affect the airlines' domestic growth, and they are falling behind carriers in other regions. After modest growth earlier in the 1990s, AACO members saw a downturn last year as a fall of 2.4% in domestic traffic outweighed a 0.6% increase in international business. Load factors were about 6% below the global average, and varied between 51% and 70%. The organisation's secretary-general, Abdul Wahab Teffaha, says AACO traffic has grown more slowly than total traffic at Arab airports - indicating that airlines from outside the region have led the growth.

While some of the newer operators are committed to competition, many of the more established airlines are fearful of the change. One proponent of deregulation is five-year-old Qatar Airways, which competes directly against state-owned Gulf Air, and the fiercely independent Emirates (an advocate of complete open skies since its formation in 1985): "We want everyone to be able to come and go," says Qatar chief executive Akbar Al-Baker.

Some observers see the problems involved, such as Sham Seldin, planning director at Sudan Airways. "Liberalisation is impossible," he says. "In this region, you will never find two countries who will agree."

Egyptair chairman Mohammed Fahim Rayan claims to support open skies, but only if "all skies are open". Ahmed Rihan, head of Egyptair international organisation and government affairs, says that Egyptair accepts liberalisation in the long term, but argues there is minority support within AACO.

AACO's Teffaha says that open skies is "an instrument, not an objective. Carriers must decide what they want and then how air transport can serve that economic purpose."

Source: Flight International