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Arabesk airlines close to final agreement

Eight Arab airlines are to sign off on Arabesk, the network cooperation agreement led by the Arab Air Carriers Organisation, next month.

Eight Arab airlines are to sign off on Arabesk, the network cooperation agreement led by the Arab Air Carriers Organisation (AACO), in Cairo next month. The pact will help the member carriers to better coordinate flights between their home bases and, later, into overseas markets. The results should be many more codeshare deals between local airlines and greater connectivity for passengers, particularly once Arabesk comes into full effect in April.

The Arabesk project was launched in 2004 as a way of improving cooperation between airlines in the Arab World. Eight carriers are now involved in the discussions — EgyptAir, Gulf Air, Middle East Airlines, Oman Air, Royal Jordanian, Saudi Arabian Airlines, TunisAir and Yemenia — along with consultants from Sabre Airlines Solutions. Other Arab airlines are also welcome to join the talks at any stage.

Most press reports about the project have compared it to the global airline alliances, such as oneworld and SkyTeam. However, Arabesk actually has much more focused goals that revolve around bilateral codeshares and network alignment, rather than general multi-airline arrangements. As such, Arabesk airlines can also join the global alliances, as shown by RJ’s invitation to join oneworld. “‘Alliance’ is too big a word to use about Arabesk at this point in time,” said Abdul Wahab Teffaha, secretary general, AACO. “It is more of a grouping for network cooperation.”

The goal of Arabesk is to help member carriers agree codeshare deals that will improve their networks and schedules. It creates both a forum for discussions and also templates for codeshare deals between the carriers on both intra-regional and long-haul routes. Such a forum is needed because of the politicised nature of Arab aviation, which has led to limited regional services and little commercial cooperation until now. “What AACO has done is taken the politics out of the discussions altogether, and created a forum where we can talk as airlines,” said a senior manager from one of the Arabesk carrier.

At the Cairo meeting, the Arabesk carriers will initial the general outline of the agreement and the framework for future cooperation. “The meeting in December is not a technical meeting,” said Teffaha. “It is to look at governance, how things are going to be done, who is going to oversee the project, how the templates for cooperation are going to be formulated and so on. They may, at least, initial some issues that they will agree upon, but they will not sign the instrument of establishment of an entity, not at this stage,” he added.

There should also be some announcements about codeshare deals soon after the meeting as well. Teffaha stated that a number of deals resulting from the initial Arabesk discussions have already been signed, including Gulf Air’s cooperation with both Saudi Arabian Airlines and EgyptAir, and he expects more to come before the end of the year. The majority, however, will probably not be concluded until the second quarter of next year when Arabesk is finalised. “The deals signed so far were identified during the study period, and why would they wait until a later period [to implement them]? They were very simple bilateral issues that could be addressed immediately,” Teffaha said.

“There is also a number of other codeshares that may come into effect relatively soon, probably by December/January, but the bulk of the codeshares, if everything goes well… will be implemented in April 2006,” he added.

By then, AACO also expects to be much less involved in Arabesk, with the member airlines instead driving the project forward. “I think it is important for the airlines to take things in their own hands… as AACO is not a commercial entity,” said Teffaha.

“They [the member carriers] needed a neutral body to put in place the framework and the mechanism for how we can get to that desired level of cooperation. However, after that, if AACO will have a role, it will be very limited — perhaps providing an umbrella for dealings with other Arab airlines and with other entities. But, I cannot see a role for AACO beyond that,” he added.

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