An Air Arabia flight headed for Bahrain was to leave Sharjah on Sunday at 6:00pm and reach Manama at 6:10pm Bahrain time. The plane, an A320, did not take off until 15 minutes past six. A 15-minute delay is good, considering that the average flight delay in the Middle East is 36 minutes.
Nevertheless, the regions aviation sector holds a lot of promise. With passenger traffic projected to rise close to 5 per cent annually until 2034, the region would be needing at least 120 planes each year, thousands of pilots and thousands more of engineers and skilled technicians.
These projections have been carefully calculated. Passenger traffic has been growing by double digit figures in some countries, particularly the UAE. The region sits within four hour-flight of 40 per cent of the worlds population that account for 17 per cent of the worlds GDP. Double that flight hours and the region is within 87 per cent and 64 per cent of the worlds population and GDP, respectively. The rest of the world is within 16 hours flying time.
This, to most carriers and freighters, is more than enough to drive future passenger and cargo traffic into, from and within the region.
The regions youth bulge and intermittent push to diversify economies away from hydrocarbons also mean a greater percentage of the population will be travelling for both business and leisure over the coming years.
But if the number of active aircraft across the region were to increase three-fold over a 20 year period, some major changes have to be made soon.
Airports need to be expanded. The Bahrain and Kuwait airports, for example, are operating beyond their capacity. Airports also need to be equipped with updated navigational equipment and more sophisticated security and IT systems, especially in view of the rising terrorist threats. The airline companies must get rid of bureaucracy and adopt measures to achieve greater operational efficiencies.
There have got to be a cohesive and harmonised air space management system across the region, with a mechanism to allow for flexibility in terms of air space allocation between civil and military use. More importantly, there has got to be a robust education and training programme for aviation professionals.
Unless all of these take place, the skies will be falling. Or as Air Arabia CEO Adel al-Adil recently put it, the skies are already falling. If 50 per cent of the Arab air space will continue to be closed to civil traffic, then the average 36 minute flight delays could only worsen.
If people, processes and technologies within the aviation sector are not upgraded to meet future growth, then the region would have missed a major opportunity towards its much talked-about diversification strategy.
Finally, for governments to not invest in a sector that can potentially employ thousands of their own nationals in well-paying jobs amid a chronic unemployment issue that indirectly feeds extremism may be considered nothing short of being irresponsible.