Al-Ahram Weekly Online   3 - 9 September 2009
Issue No. 963
Sky High
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Ramadan for airlines

For air travel business in the Middle East, Ramadan this year is clouded with more losses, a fare-cut war and few charities. Amirah Ibrahim looks at business during the Holy Month

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Emirates' Iftar box and fasting passengers receive EgyptAir Iftar juice

Iftar on`board

The holy month of Ramadan has prompted Arab airlines to adopt a number of enhancements within their in-flight services, to ensure that all fasting customers are well taken care of, in line with the core values of this important religious occasion.

For flights departing close to Iftar, some airlines, such as Turkish Airlines and Emirates Airlines provide small snack boxes at the boarding gates. The snack boxes, containing baklawa, dates, a laban drink and water, is served as a quick snack so that passengers can break their fast immediately.

Large, specially prepared Iftar meal boxes are served on board flights to fasting passengers in-flight. It comprises an assortment of traditional Arabic delicacies including a hot chicken shawarma, crudités, Arabic bread, pistachio maamoul, a banana, dates, water and a laban drink. The meal box is served in economy class, with a similar selection of foods served to fasting passengers in both business and first class.

"Although the airline is a multicultural company, still it is rooted in Islamic culture committed to ensuring that Muslim passengers are fully satisfied with the service they receive during Ramadan," stated Ahmed Khoory, Emirates Senior vice president.

Non-fasting passengers travelling on omra flights receive a cold meal instead of the regular hot meal for all flights taking off after sunrise and before sundown, in respect to the many Muslim passengers completing omra on these flights.

Nasair, the Saudi budget airline, announced that a light Iftar meal would be distributed to the passengers on board its flights coincides with Maghreb Prayer or Iftar time. More than 440 flights during Ramadan are prepared with more than 440,000 light meals to be distributed free of charge to all passengers.

Nasair adopted a low fare tickets concept, early reservation and no free meals on board in return for price reductions. The carrier said the step was taken in harmonisation with Ramadan's spiritual importance and the passenger's feelings.

The national carrier EgyptAir has neither offered Iftar boxes to passengers who fly during Ramadan on board its flights nor has it introduced promotional packages during Ramadan or the coming Eid.

Officials at the airlines justified the act as that all flights operted on most tourist destinations, be it domestic or international ones, are fully booked during Eid vacation. Thus, the carreir doesn't feel a need to make dicounted packages.

"Mostly, our operating schedules do not include departing flights close to sunset," stated EgyptAir Airlines chairman Captain Shereif Galal. "On the other hand, we have received strict warnings from Saudi authorities to ban distributing Iftar box to passengers to help maintaining a healthy environment in Saudi airports. We respect such requests particularly since this year we will transfer around 100,000 omra passenegers during Ramadan," he added.

EgyptAir in-flight services have been slightly modified to satisfy fasting passengers. The meal served has been expanded to contain extra apricot juice, dates and a laban drink.

"Passengers who are in-flight when the sun sets are informed by the captain that it is now time for Iftar. Sunset is determined based on where the aircraft is located at the time the sun goes down," explained Galal.

Instead of offering Iftar boxes to passengers, in-flight services on board the carrier's flights are to be re-arranged according to Iftar time. "Even when operating from any station abroad, if it happens that a flight takes off at Iftar time, flight attendants have clear restrictions to delay all other services such as distributing newspapers, pillows and blankets so that to start serving the meal first," Galal explained.

The Royal Jordanian Airlines launched a campaign to feed hundreds of poor fasting citizens in the country. From early Ramadan, the company has been organising a mass Iftar for orphans and poor people at the company's main social club at Om Azina district. A team of volunteers including airline staffers and led by airline board members and Chairman Mohamed Khashman join in the daily work to prepare 450 iftar meals offered to the poor.

"We are keen to communicate in a positive way with our citizens and share the local community's concerns," commented Khashman. "The carrier has also taken the initiative to offer charities to the poor and families in need of food and clothes, distributing thousands of charity boxes in cooperation with social bodies."

Kuwait's low cost carrier, Al-Jazeera Airlines, took different steps to celebrate Ramadan, supporting Bait Al-Zakat, the official body authorised to collect Zakat money from Muslims in the country. The airline did not release the amount of money offered to support the Zakat body. It announced that it would include an active link to the Zakat web site within its on-line web site so that its passengers would learn more about Zakat activities and encourage them to make donations and pay their Zakat dues on time.

H1N1 hits Ramadan omra

The national carrier EgyptAir has revealed a record of heavy loses due to new restrictions imposed by the government to organize omra season during Ramadan and after.

During the two Hijri months of Sha'ban and Ramadan, the most highly sought by omra pilgrims, bookings decreased by 10 per cecnt comparing to last year. But as for the holy month of Ramadan, the business hit loses of 30to 40 per cent.

According to Captain Shereif Galal, EgyptAir Chairman, the drastic loses were mainly caused by recent restrictions set by the government which limited the age of pilgrims to be between 25-65 years old.

"The H1N1 discouraged omra seekers to perform omra this year thus, figures showed a drop in the business over the two months before Ramadan," explained Galal. "But as for Ramadan season where we used to transfer around 120,000 passengers, figures show that the number dropped by more than the third," he added.

So far, Galal indicated, the carrier had to cancel bookings for 24, 640 omra passengers and refund the tickets sold at a total of LE 59 millions.

"Normally, bookings for omra continue during the month of Ramadan for those who seek to perform omra during the last ten days of Ramadan. Prices usually are the most higher. Due to recent restrictions, bookings drew back far behind the annual figure. We expect loses to exceed LE85 millions," stated Galal.

The worst is about Hajj season, the great Pilgrimage performed once a year, where new restrictions are expected to bring huge loses to air transport business. Official figures provided by the carrier show that the Egyptian government is due to issue a total amount of 78.138 visas for Egyptian pilgrims. Out of this number, the national carrier will transfer 61,500 while 6,6638 are due to travel by sea and other 10,000 will travel by buses.

"Adding the transit pilgrims the carrier transfer via Cairo International, estimated by 12,000 pilgrims, our total quota is expected to exceed 72,600 passengers," explained Galal.

The Saudi authorities on the other hand have released new restrictions to be applied on pilgrims who plan to perform Hajj this year. These restrictions include obtaining a vaccination against seasonal influenza two weeks before applying for the visa. Pilgrims also are committed to be vaccinated against A H1N1 if the vaccination is produced and distributed world wide before applying to obtain the Hajj visa.

"This means that pilgrims will be subject to cancel their holy trips after completing bookings and all other procedure in case they fail to get it in time," Galal indicated.

Fly for less

While Middle East airlines have unveiled discount fares and packages to boost load factor during the Ramadan period, European carriers rushed to cut fares so that to combat the declining air traffic volumes.

Emirates Airlines has developed special accommodation packages for passengers travelling to or via Dubai during the holy month of Ramadan, from August 20 to September 20, 2009.

The airline announced discounted fares, to a total of 17 destinations such as Bahrain, Karachi, Amman, Cairo, Damascus, Delhi, Istanbul, Beirut, Doha, Kuwait, Muscat, Athens, Casablanca and Islamabad.

Emirates' passengers already holding a one-way or return ticket to or via Dubai are eligible to book a three-night stay in some of Dubai's properties, at discounted packages starting from USD 67 per person, per night, based on twin sharing. Participating properties includefive star hotels and resorts. The Ramadan package does not include flights, which must be purchased separately. A minimum three night stay is required with the option to extend the stay.

Etihad Airways on the other hand, has launched "World Deals" for August and September, lasting up to the end of Ramadan period, through its Holidays division. This includes low airfares to various destinations in Germany, the United States, Thailand, Turkey, Malaysia, China, Beirut, South Africa and Jordan.

The carrier offered attractive package for Ramadan including a three-night package for Jordan which starts at Dh1,935 with a choice of three- to five-star hotels being offered.

Sharjah-based carrier, AirArabia , has offered Ramadan deals through its Holidays division. Valid until the end of September, the deals include airfare-hotels packages across regions. For instance, while a four-night package to Turkey costs as low as Dh1,710, a three-night package to Kathmandu starts at Dh1,910.

The airline's offers allow a choice of three- to five-star hotels, packed with other features, and include other destinations such as Beirut, Jordan, Cairo and Kenya.

European carriers such as British Airways, Lufthansa and Turkish Airlines also joined Middle East airlines in the price-cut war during Ramadan.

The German carrier, Lufthansa is currently offering reduced fares from Middle east destinations to Europe. Yet the carrier focused its offers on Arab Gulf countries targeting its population with attractive packages to spend Eid vacation in Europe.

The airline launched special fares from the UAE, Kuwait and Oman to 40 destinations in Europe. A round-trip flight from UAE to Europe can be booked starting for as little as AED 1090 and from Kuwait to Europe starting from KWD 79 and fares from Oman to Europe starting from OMR 79. Destinations include Amsterdam, Berlin, Brussels, Copenhagen, Dèsseldorf, Geneva, Hamburg, Hanover, London, Lyon, Madrid, Oslo, Paris, Prague, Rome, Valencia, Venice, Vienna, Warsaw, Zurich and more.

The British Airways, meanwhile, revealed plans to reduce its World Traveller (economy) airfares to popular destinations in Europe and North America during the Ramadan period. To avail of this offer, tickets should be purchased between August 20 and September 3, for travel up to March 31, 2010, said BA. All prices "include taxes, fees and service charges".

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