espite crisis after crisis paralysing the Egyptian market in recent years, Air Cairo is

sticking by its growth plans and even stepping up activity in Europe as it evolves from a mixed charter and low-cost carrier (LCC) into a hybrid scheduled operator. The airline was launched in 1997 as a

charter specialist, but gradually diversified with low-cost flying after EgyptAir, the state-owned flag-carrier, became a shareholder in 2003. Its brand name is somewhat misleading, with the majority of flights departing from secondary cities like Sohag and Asyut on the Nile, Sharm El Sheikh and Hurghada on the Red Sea, and Alexandria on the northern coast. Although a good portion of the network

caters for regional flows between Egypt and Saudi Arabia, Air Cairo’s leisure bases have inevitably felt the impact of repeated aviation disasters and scares in the country. “The demand, of course, was affected

after the crash of the Russian aircraft,” CEO Yasser El Ramly says, referring to the October 2015 likely bombing of Metrojet Flight 9268 shortly after take-off from Sharm El Sheikh International Airport. “The first half of the year was very tough from January to June, but still we operate around 30 weekly flights to Europe with good loads, even with a 75% load factor.” Egyptian aviation was rocked by three

further incidents in 2016: the hijacking of EgyptAir Flight 181 in March by a man with a fake suicide-bomb belt; the still-unexplained crash of EgyptAir Flight 804 in May; and the attempted cockpit storming of Air Cairo Flight 462 in September.

Coming on the heels of the 2011

revolution against dictator Hosni Mubarak and the 2013 military coup, these successive crises have pushed Egyptian tourism revenues down to just $6 billion per year – less than half the takings seen in 2010.

Changing business model

Ramly’s response has been to change the business model again, slashing charter operations to just 15% of activity and changing the product to match regional LCC competitors such as Saudi Arabia’s Flynas and Kuwait’s Jazeera Airways. “We want to introduce a new strategy

in the Egyptian market... to make our scheduled flights available to many customers, not only for the tour operators and the people who have a programme with the hotel,” he says, describing self-booking as a novel concept for many holidaymakers. “We still see room for charter, especially for the high season. But we would like for all the markets we serve to be all-year-round so that customers can always find an aeroplane to spend a nice holiday in Egypt.”

With charter operations likely to

account for just 10% of the business this summer, Air Cairo is investing in new distribution channels in a bid to capture more scheduled traffic. The carrier transitioned to Amadeus’s Altéa Reservation and Inventory systems in June, broadening visibility of its flights and laying the groundwork for future interlines and codeshares. “One of the reasons that we moved to

the Amadeus system is because we would like to have cooperation with some of the private airlines in Egypt and the Middle East, and in Europe as well,” Ramly confirms. “We signed already an interline agreement with EgyptAir, and we are ready to take this step... with airlines in Europe and the Gulf.” Asked whether Air Cairo is

repositioning itself as a full-service carrier, he side-stepped the question by invoking its deliberately ambiguous “low-fare” label.

Premium options All of the airline’s passengers currently receive a free checked baggage allowance and free onboard meals. One of its aircraft also has a business-class cabin, albeit only because it was transferred from parent company EgyptAir and is used on routes from the capital. Ramly says that in future up to 25% of the fleet may be configured with a premium cabin. As of December 2016, Air Cairo’s seven

Airbus A320s are spread thin among 11 scheduled destinations in Europe (Belgrade, Billund, Bratislava, Budapest, Copenhagen, Dusseldorf, Hannover, Munich, Oslo, Prague and Stuttgart); eight in the Middle East (Amman, Doha, Hofuf, Jeddah, Kuwait, Qassim, Riyadh and Yanbu); and Tbilisi in the Caucasus. Charter flights to other points in Poland, Germany, Austria and Russia are also operated. Emboldened by early signs of a tourism

recovery – visitor numbers to Egypt rose 7% month-on-month in October – the airline is planning scheduled route launches to Katowice, Linz, Vienna and Warsaw. Services to Baku should also resume in 2017, while studies continue for Bucharest, Dubai, Kazakhstan and one additional point in Germany. Network expansion will be fuelled

by steady growth of the fleet, which is expected to reach 10 units this summer and 20 by the end of the decade. Ramly says that a new aircraft livery

may also be on the cards, although management has opted not to make Air Cairo’s brand more reflective of its current network. “We studied [whether we should] change our company name,” he admits, referring to its limited presence in the capital. “But we found w ROUTES NEWS 2017 ISSUE 1 21

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