ROUTES AFRICA: Egypt’s Nile Air defies downturn

Despite a steep drop in tourism traffic to Egypt, Nile Air, the Cairo-based scheduled carrier founded in 2008, plans to double its fleet size and add several new destinations this year. Chief executive Ahmed Aly, says the privately owned Nile Air has been shielded from the downturn by its diverse customer base and Middle Eastern route network. The airline flies from three points in Egypt to five Saudi Arabian destinations plus Kuwait.

“We’ve got a very good spread of passengers,” Aly, formerly head of network planning and strategy at Etihad Airways, tells our sister publication, Routes News. “Tourism from the Gulf has held up much better than from Europe. There’s also a large diaspora of Egyptians living in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, so we’ve got strong VFR traffic. And we see Umrah and Hajj religious traffic being extremely resilient.”

Nile Air’s existing fleet of two A320s will grow to four units this year, with Aly eager to expand its regional footprint, as well as enter European and African markets.

The airline launched flights from Cairo to Jeddah in March, and is planning a new service from Luxor to Kuwait this summer. But the expansion of the fleet will pave the way for much larger growth, with Turkey, Italy, the UK, the UAE, Libya and Sudan all being evaluated as possible future destinations. “The Egyptian market is highly dynamic,” Aly says of the country’s wider prospects. “Notwithstanding the current changes in the political landscape, we’ve got strong potential,” he adds.

Tourism numbers to the North African country are down by 28% so far in 2014, following three years of contraction or stagnant growth amid widespread civil unrest. The overthrow of President Hosni Mubarak in the 2011 Arab Spring kick-started the troubles, with a temporary increase in visitors the following year being quickly reversed by last summer’s military coup. Recent terror attacks in the North Sinai region have further jangled nerves.

But Aly insists the fundamentals underpinning the country are favourable. “Egyptian aviation is in a strong position given the strong characteristics of the Egyptian market – a tourism destination with global appeal, a large population centre, a regional power and its geographical location,” he says. “I believe now, as stability returns to the country, we’ll see a strong rebound and growth.”

The chief executive adds that, although liberalisation of the aviation sector has been “slower than in other countries in the region”, the Egyptian authorities made crucial progress in March when they opened up the Cairo–Jeddah market. Ending the duopoly enjoyed by flag carriers EgyptAir and Saudi Airlines on the route marked a “very significant strategic step”, he says, describing it as the largest origin-and-destination market in the Middle East.

Political relations between Egypt and Saudi Arabia have improved noticeably since the 2013 overthrow of the Muslim Brotherhood, and Aly points to “much stronger volumes coming out of Saudi Arabia” in this summer’s bookings. Nile Air last year reconfigured the business class cabins on its A320s down from 16 to 8 seats, lifting the type’s overall capacity to 164. That precipitated a 21% increase in annual passenger numbers to nearly 350,000, with load factors growing to 72%.

Richard Maslen

Richard Maslen has travelled across the globe to report on developments in the aviation sector as airlines and airports have continued to evolve and…