Saudi Arabia’s airline industry is stirring back to life as Gulf countries ease the restrictions implemented to curb the spread of the coronavirus.
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About 100 flights are due to take off in a phased return to normal, Minister of Transport Eng. Saleh bin Nasser Al-Jasser said on Saturday.
The Kingdom’s General Authority for Civil Aviation (GACA), of which Al-Nasser is also chairman, earlier said it had completed operational preparations to gradually lift the suspension.
However, experts caution that these developments should not be mistaken for full recovery, adding that the airline industry faces an uphill struggle to return to normal operations and sound financial health.
Saudi Arabia halted international flights from March 15 and domestic flights from March 21 in response to the outbreak of COVID-19 infections.
The suspension affected not only airlines but also airport operators, airport on-site enterprises such as restaurants and retail businesses, aircraft manufacturers, and air navigation service providers.
In the Gulf Cooperation Council bloc, shutdowns have imperiled the livelihoods of thousands of nationals and expatriates.
Given the growing role that air travel and tourism was playing as part of Saudi Arabia’s economic diversification plans, the pandemic has proved a classic double whammy.
Predictably, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) — the trade association for the world’s airlines — has called for industry-specific financial relief measures from the Saudi government.
IATA measures the economic impact of an event by looking at jobs, spending generated by airlines and their supply chain, trade flows, tourism and investment resulting from users of all airlines serving the country, as well as the connections to other cities through the same airline that make these flows possible.
“All provide a different but illuminating perspective on the importance of air transport,” the association stated in a report entitled “The Importance of Air Transport to Saudi Arabia.”
The Kingdom introduced relief measures for the private sector in the wake of the pandemic, but IATA estimates that revenues generated by airlines in the Saudi market will drop by $7.2 billion in 2020 — 35 percent below their 2019 levels.
“In response to the impact of COVID-19, the Saudi government has introduced broad economic relief measures in excess of $32 billion in financial support for the private sector,” IATA said in a statement.
“It has also provided support for air transport by suspending the airport slot use rules for the summer season and extending licenses and certifications for crew, trainers and examiners.”
IATA added: “We urge the government to build on this and implement specific financial relief measures for aviation to ensure that the sector will be capable of driving the recovery.”
Some of the measures recommended for Saudi Arabia by IATA include direct financial support to passenger and cargo carriers; financial relief on airport and air traffic control charges and taxes; and the reduction, waiver or deferral of government-imposed taxes and fees.
Muhammad Al-Bakri, IATA’s regional vice president for Africa and the Middle East, believes the urgency of airline industry-specific relief measures cannot be overemphasized.
“Given the industry’s role in social and economic development, it is important the government prioritizes aviation and provides urgent financial relief,” he said.
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