Middle East is a large and very diverse region, comprising more than a dozen
countries with unique characteristics regarding politics, culture, language and
The MENA area - the Middle East and some North
African countries - has an estimated population of more than 444 million people
as of 2017, according to the World Bank.
And it’s a population that is relatively young,
educated and technologically savvy.
World Competitiveness Report 2018” from the World Economic Forum states that, in 2015,
nearly one in five people in the region were between the ages of 15 and 24. And
a World Economic Forum report says one-third
of the population was below the age of 15 in 2017.
These young people have a voracious appetite for
online content and social media.
According to Global Media Insight, active
internet usage in the United Arab Emirates is more than 99%,
users spend an average of nearly eight hours online each day and 61% of the
internet usage is on mobile. According to Google, mobile watch time of YouTube
in the MENA region is one of the fastest growing in the world, rising by 90%
year-on-year from 2014 to 2015.
This mix of a young, socially engaged population
in the Middle East bodes well for travel brands and destinations as it fosters
an awareness of - and desire to explore - other parts of the world.
Middle East Online Travel Overview, Third Edition states, “Middle East
travelers are ... traveling frequently - some four to five trips annually, on
predicts the Middle East region will grow annually by 4.4% and will see an
extra 290 million air passengers on routes to, from and within the region by
2037, with the total market size increasing to 501 million passengers during that
For the fourth and final piece in our in-depth look at the Middle
East, we delve into the aviation sector with a look at what is happening at some
of the region’s airports and airlines.
Investment in the
aviation industry around the Middle East has been substantial for the past
airports have been built, and existing ones have been modernized. According to
global consultancy Mace, airport expansion and modernization contracts awarded
in the MENA region from 2010 to 2017 were valued at close to $38 billion.
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Two of the biggest
projects are renovations at Saudi Arabia’s Jeddah King Abdulaziz
International Airport ($7.1 billion), which is nearing completion, and Dubai
International Airport in UAE ($7.8 billion). A new $1.8 billion-passenger terminal
at Muscat International Airport in Oman opened last year.
And earlier this month, Turkey’s new $12 billion Istanbul
Airport finished its first phase of construction and assumed operation of all
commercial flights previously operating through Ataturk Airport.
When construction is complete, airport officials
say the facility will host flights to more than 300 destinations and have an
annual capacity of 200 million passengers, making it the largest airport in the
It is also on track to become one of the world’s
most technologically advanced airports, incorporating biometric passport
checkpoints, automated bag-drop facilities, artificial intelligence and beacons.
“We have developed a whole range of software for
the İstanbul New Airport from mobile applications to boost passenger
satisfaction and airport security systems, to an airline messaging platform and
a joint decision-making system,” says Ersin İnankul, general manager of iGA
Systems, the company designing, installing and operating Istanbul Airport’s
“We are also working on current technological
systems such as the first airport data center in the world, the first virtual
tower application in Turkey, domestic robots and unmanned passenger transfer
vehicles. The domestic and national technologies we develop here are poised to
set an example for all airports in the world.”
The airport’s app will allow travelers to choose and reserve
transportation to the airport while still at home, with options factored based
on flight time, current passenger traffic at the airport and road and weather conditions.
Members of the airport’s loyalty program, iGA Pass,
will have additional benefits such as “Meet & Greet” service by a personal
assistant from the moment they arrive at the airport until they reach their
gate, “Fast Track” processing, shopping assistance and transportation via a
golf cart-type vehicle from passport check to the departure gate.
“We claim that this airport is the
biggest airport in the world but more importantly, it is the one that provides
the best service,” says Kadri Samsunlu, CEO and chairman of the executive
board at iGA Airport Operations.
“We see iGA PASS as a
differentiating element at this point. Our special passenger program will serve the new generation travel
concept. iGA PASS will turn air travels into an
enjoyable, relaxing and fun experience
rather than time spent to reach one point from another.”
Airlines in the Middle East are also at the forefront of
innovation – both network carriers Emirates, Etihad and Qatar - and newer low-cost
In October, Emirates announced the launch of what it calls “the
world’s first ‘biometric path’” at its hub at Dubai International Airport.
The airline is beginning with trials of its “Smart Tunnel,”
which allows passengers to simply walk through the tunnel to be cleared by
immigration authorities without the need for human intervention or a physical
The next phase will add the use of facial- and iris-recognition
systems to enable passengers to check in for their flight, enter the Emirates Lounge
and board their flights.
In the future, the airline says the biometric technology
will enable “live” passenger tracking to improve security and enable enhanced
service, for example allowing staff to locate and assist travelers who are at
risk of missing their flights.
“It’s a really good example of where they are showcasing new
modern technology in a very practical sense,” says Carl Dainter, head of
aviation at Mace.
“[But] the Middle East remains very security conscious, so in
the Middle East specifically, do we see a massive uptake of this kind of technology?
Possibly not, simply because they will continue to resort to more practical and more
dependable means, particularly given that the deployability of this as a
solution is heavily dependent on pre-registration and that doesn’t necessarily happen
in those parts of the world.”
Over 90% of our bookings are online and over 50% of our online bookings are on mobile devices.
Sudeep Ghai - Flyadeal
In other areas of innovation, Emirates has introduced remote
check-in services, allowing passengers to check in for their flights from their
home, hotel or office and have their luggage transported to the airport. On its
website, Emirates uses virtual-reality technology enabling customers to explore
aircraft cabins and seat views in 3D.
And in January, Emirates added an entertainment-syncing
function to its app. Customers can now use the app from home to create a playlist
pulled from the entertainment system’s more than 1,000 movies and tens of
thousands of music tracks, podcasts and games and then sync it with the
seatback screen for playback on select flights.
“In keeping with our ‘Fly Better’ promise, our teams work
tirelessly to provide ever better world-class travel experiences,” says Sir Tim
Clark, president of Emirates Airlines.
“Every detail is carefully considered as we continually
enhance and develop innovative products and services for our customers. This
latest functionality on the Emirates app elevates the customer experience even
before they step onto the aircraft.”
Another one of the large international carriers in the region
- Etihad, the national airline of the UAE - is working with automation
technology provider Elenium, and Amazon Web Services to use cloud technology,
AI and computer vision to improve the customer’s journey.
The technology will power self-service transfer kiosks being
installed in phases at a new terminal in Abu Dhabi.
AI will scan and save each suitcase as it's placed on the
belt and assign it to a traveler reservation, eliminating the need for tagged
luggage; voice-activated displays will offer personalized, duty-free shopping; and flight boarding will be automated with biometric identification.
technological vision and strategy is to make the guest journey a frictionless
and digitally enabled experience across all channels and touch points at the
airport,” says Mike Papamichael, vice president of technology and innovation
for Etihad Airways.
According to a
report from CAPA earlier this month, there are just five low-cost carriers in
the Middle East, with Flydubai, Air Arabia and Flyna having the largest fleets.
But, says CAPA, “There
are also huge growth opportunities for LCCs in the Middle East, but competing
with network airlines can be challenging.”
Launched in September 2017, Saudi Arabia-based Flyadeal is
one of the region's newest low-cost carriers and a subsidiary of Saudia, the state-owned
Chief customer and experience officer Sudeep Ghai says the
airline flew 2.5 million passengers on domestic routes in 2018, using a
single-class, low-fare model with leased A320 airplanes.
“Our targeted customer is young, value-focused, price-conscious
- customers that are consciously aware that they want the best deal and an
airline that gets them from A to B for a good value fare, on time,” Ghai says.
The airline knows that target customer is also
digitally savvy, spurring a unique marketing and distribution strategy.
Flyadeal doesn’t work with any global distribution systems,
online travel agencies or metasearch platforms, and instead cites Google as its
most effective channel.
“Over 90% of our bookings are online, and over 50% of our
online bookings are on mobile devices,” Ghai says.
“We’re not aware of any airline in the world that can match
these numbers. This was recognized in our being awarded Startup of the Year by
Seamless Middle East earlier this month, competing not just across airlines but
also against other industry verticals. In addition, our marketing since launch
has been 100% digital. This has been super cost- and ROI-effective.”
The airline is innovating in other areas – introducing the
country’s first “ladies-only” seating rows and hiring the first female cabin
crews for a Saudi airline.
Ghai says the airline aims to add international routes
within the next year, to have 50 aircraft within five years – it currently has
11 - and to continue to incorporate new ideas.
“We’re looking to meet the needs of our customers as
efficiently as possible, continue with our focus on the low-fare airline model
and partner with technology innovators that are looking for a simple, agile and
flexible platforms to test new customer-centered ideas,” he says.