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End of visa flights hurts UAE airports and airlines

The UAE’s decision to amend its visa regulations following last month’s Kish Airline crash will have a significant impact on the country’s airports and on charter companies that relied on visa flight traffic.

The UAE’s decision to amend its visa regulations following last month’s Kish Airline crash will have a significant impact on the country’s airports and on charter companies that relied on visa flight traffic. With people in the Emirates now able to change their visas without leaving the country, the UAE’s aviation sector has lost a significant source of revenue.

The visa rules were changed after a Kish Airline Fokker-50 crashed as it was approaching Sharjah Airport on the 10th of February. The plane was carrying people who had flown from the UAE to Kish Island so that they could change their visa status. 48 people were killed in the crash, with just three survivors.

The cause of the crash has yet to be identified, but the black box flight recorders have been found and they are currently being processed in Maastricht. “After the analysis is finished the cause of the accident will be disclosed,” says H. A. Shahbazilar, deputy, aeronautical & international affairs, Civil Aviation Organisation, Iran, who is heading up the Iranian side of the joint UAE/Iranian crash investigation.

The crash highlighted the industry that had grown up to get round the UAE’s visa regulations. In theory, the rules were meant to force people in the UAE on visit visas to return to their home country in order to apply for an employment visa. However, charter companies instead flew groups out of the UAE, mainly to Kish or Muscat, where the passengers spent a night, or even just a few minutes, before being flown back.

After the crash, the UAE amended its visa rules, so that people in the country could change a visit visa to an employment visa by paying a Dhs 500 (US $136) fee. At a stroke, a significant source of revenue for the country’s airports and charter companies was wiped out.

Kish Airline, itself, was one of the most affected, as it specialised in visa flights, alongside its regular scheduled services, operating up to three such flights a day. “It has affected our business, I must admit,” says Noufal Mohammed, marketing manager, Kish Airline. “There will be less people flying to Kish Island now for the visa changes.”

Airports in the UAE also lost out. Fujairah, for instance, handled up to 800 passengers a week who were taking visa flights. “The drop in passengers will affect all UAE airports,” says Khaled Almazroui, general manager, Fujairah International.

“When you have a passenger flying from your airport you get revenue, and when you do not have that passenger flying from your airport you lose that revenue… The terminal fees, the duty free shop, ground handling, parking the aircraft — we are going to lose all that,” he adds.

“We will be not affected that much as 90% of our aircraft movements are cargo flights, and only 10% were passengers… However, we would like these flights to be resumed, as any passenger is a source of revenue,” he continues.

International airports will also be affected, but as they have a wider mix of operations, the impact should be more limited. Seeb International, for instance, was a popular destination for visa flights, but as the airport also handles a large number of other flights, Oman Airports Management Company’s head of marketing & public affairs, Johan Viljoen, says “our exposure is not vast, so we anticipate the impact on our business to be nominal.”

However, even though all visa flights out of the UAE have been stopped for the time being, it is likely that they will resume in some form in the future. This is because there are still a number of visa changes that cannot be undertaken within the country. Visit visa holders wishing to extend their stay will still have to leave the country, and people on tourist visas who want to switch to employment visas may have to as well, although this is still unclear. “Until now, the decision [over tourist visas] has not been issued,” says Almazroui.

“Visit visa holders at most of the [UAE] airports were a very small percentage out of the total visa change passengers,” he adds. “Most of the visa change passengers were not visit visa passengers — they were tourist visa holders.”

Even if visa flights do resume, the operations will be more limited, which will force charter companies and airlines that run visa flights to find new passengers. Kish Airline is attempting to do this by highlighting its wider network — it serves a number of destinations in Iran, the Middle East and Europe — and by promoting the island as a tourist destination.

“There is a good possibility of business to Kish Island, since Kish Island is a free zone and tourism is developing there,” says Mohammed.

However, Kish and other carriers that have developed the visa flight market will need to completely overhaul their networks and business methods in order to serve non-visa flight traffic. “The challenge for these airlines will be to refocus their marketing and sales efforts,” comments Viljoen. “They may also have to address their flight schedules to access the business travel and leisure travel markets,” he adds.

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