How war is putting Middle East aviation at risk

The human suffering in Gaza is accompanied by losses that are undermining this vital industry

A picture taken on April 11, 2014 shows a Middle East Airlines (MEA) commercial plane preparing to take off from Beirut's Rafic Hariri International Airport. AFP PHOTO/PATRICK BAZ (Photo by PATRICK BAZ / AFP)
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With more than 40 years' experience in aviation, including a stint as chief executive of Bahrain's Gulf Air and sitting on the International Air Transport Association's Board of Governors, Royal Jordanian’s CEO Samer Majali is someone who knows the industry in the Middle East – and its challenges – like few others. In an exclusive interview with The National yesterday, he spoke for many executives when he described how six months of violence in Israel and Palestine had hurt his airline and the region’s economy.

While the human cost is, of course, the biggest, and Palestinian society is bearing the brunt of this war, its consequences are far-reaching. The plummeting bookings, operational difficulties and financial losses being experienced by the aviation sector are being exacerbated by a widespread perception that the Middle East is in turmoil. “They lump the region as a homogeneous unit, which is unfair and bad,” Mr Majali said.

Sadly, the Jordanian carrier is just one of several that is feeling the destabilising fallout from six months of war. Earlier this month, The National reported how the Gaza conflict continues to affect demand for travel to the Middle East and North Africa, with forward ticket bookings to the region down 6 per cent in the second quarter of 2024. Flight bookings for travel to Lebanon in the second quarter fell 33 per cent year on year, with bookings to Jordan and Egypt down 31 per cent and 15 per cent, respectively. Israel too is feeling the consequences: flight bookings to the country fell by an annualised 61 per cent for travel in the second quarter of this year.

The knock-on effects on related industries such as tourism and hospitality will put many jobs and businesses at risk, but falling demand for air travel is just the tip of the iceberg. Last week, this newspaper reported on how civilian planes arriving at Beirut’s airport are having to use alternatives to GPS to help them land because of signal jamming being blamed on Israel; indeed, the country has admitted to increasing GPS jamming in the region in a bid to thwart attacks by Hamas and Hezbollah. Last week, a Turkish Airlines flight ran into difficulties as it began its descent into Beirut because it was still using GPS navigation. It circled the airport for about 40 minutes before being forced to return to Turkey.

Aside from the human cost of the war in Gaza and the associated economic instability, incidents such as these add to a perception of danger that deters foreign visitors and returning expats – something that has a particularly negative effect for struggling countries such as Lebanon where people rely on friends and relatives to come home carrying cash and scarce essential goods. Geopolitical and military tensions are bad for aviation: the accidental shooting down of Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752 as it took off from Tehran in January 2020 is a tragic reminder of what can go wrong.

The deleterious effect of the Gaza war on regional aviation stands in stark contrast with how Israel’s establishment of ties with several Arab countries three years ago were heralded with high-profile maiden flights and the admission of Israeli planes to more Arab airspace. We are a long way from those times now and it is a bitter truth that the Gaza war is threatening much in the region, including the very industry that was the most high-profile reflection of hopes for a new Middle East.

Published: April 01, 2024, 3:00 AM
Updated: April 02, 2024, 9:30 AM