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OBG speaks to Khalid Almeer, COO, RAK Airways

RAK Airways' first flights have encountered delays. What were the major difficulties you had to overcome?

ALMEER: There were some delays, but one must keep in mind that RAK Airways is establishing itself as a regular, full service airline, not as a low-cost carrier. Establishing such an airline is a very complex formula, involving many factors - such as getting traffic rights from the countries we want to cover, training the crew and the management team and acquiring the right aircraft. The level of complexity is unlike that of any other business, and it is a highly regulated industry. It is time consuming, but the fact that the operations have been somewhat delayed does not mean that the airline itself, or its people, are inefficient or ill-qualified.

The regional market has well-established players - what is RAK Airways' competitive advantage?

ALMEER: It is true the market is very busy, but I wouldn't say it is overcrowded yet. The air transport sector is growing very fast, not just locally, but everywhere. In addition, the companies already operating in the Gulf are catering to specific, different markets, and we see an enormous potential for Ras al-Khaimah (RAK) and for ourselves. We also think RAK is well placed to serve other markets: major carriers in the region use their bases as hubs or transit points, linking East and West.

There seems to have been misunderstandings about RAK Airways' first flights from Turkey on June 23. What is the operating model of these flights?

ALMEER: Strictly speaking, it was not a RAK Airways flight. When I came in, I found out that we had a plane that had been sitting on the ground for several months, unused. Negotiations to lease this aircraft had started prior to my arrival - and I concluded this deal very quickly, because we must capitalize on every asset the company has. So we decided to lease the aircraft to Atlas Jet, a Turkish charter operator, under an ACMI - Aircraft, Crew, Management, Insurance - deal. The plane will be in Turkey for another three months, servicing Atlas' schedule on domestic and European destinations, including Italy, Spain and Scandinavian countries. Currently, there is a shortage of equipment on the European market, particularly in the "summer rush" period, and we could provide a good alternative to that operator.

What is your long-term strategy?

ALMEER: We are not considering the low-cost model, but we are exploring other options in addition to the regular, full service carrier that I mentioned earlier and the charter market is one of them. Whether it is short-term, long-term or on an ad-hoc basis, it is all on the table. At the end of the day, we are here to do business and I don't want my 757s to be sitting on the ground.

Which areas of the world will you develop first?

ALMEER: We intend to be a profitable airline from day one . It is a very ambitious goal, but hopefully we'll reach it. So until the launch of the airline, which we anticipate to be in the fourth quarter of this year, we will continue to define our business model and target markets. We want to remain as flexible as possible, so the regions currently on our agenda might not be considered tomorrow. We are still in the process of selecting destinations. Traffic rights also come into the picture. For instance, we are not sure if we will have traffic rights to India in time. If not, we have a contingency plan. Other countries apply "open skies" policies but will they be profitable? So, I can't tell you exactly yet which destinations we will cover. Having said that, we are looking more towards the Middle East, South East Asian, North and East African countries, as these are very challenging but potentially very rewarding markets. In any case, we are committed to starting our operations in the fourth quarter.

How do you intend to cover the European market?

ALMEER: We will start with a narrow-body aircraft able to fly for five and a half to six hours, which will allow us to reach some European countries, such as Germany.

Also keep in mind that in the tourism sector, you primarily deal with tour operators. Code-sharing deals and partnerships can be arranged through them, with other carriers bringing the travelers to an airport we can reach and where we can pick them up. But this will come at a later stage. Prior to that, we have to test the waters and introduce ourselves to the market.

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