Taking to the Skies

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One of the world's newest airlines, Ras Al Khaimah Airways, is to start operations in May, with the fourth national flag carrier for the United Arab Emirates being part of Ras Al Khaimah's push to develop its tourism industry and to promote the country as an alternative destination to neighbouring Dubai.

Under the program, there is to be heavy investment over the next three years to develop the country's tourism sector, with a number of high-end coastal resorts valued at around $4.5bn being constructed.

Currently, Ras Al Khaimah attracts around 25,000 tourists annually, a figure officials want to see reach 100,000 by 2010. RAK Airways has high hopes of success, targeting 230,000 passengers in its first year of operations, 580,000 after three years and 2.7m after five.

The emirate is looking to cash in on its unspoiled beaches and mountains as well as the soon to be completed major resorts to offer an alternative to other regional destinations. However, an added attraction for potential passengers is the close proximity of Ras Al Khaimah's international airport to Dubai, just 45 minutes down the highway, offering visitors the alternative of the larger emirate's bright lights alongside the more rugged natural appeal of Ras Al Khaimah.

At a ceremony held on February 19 to present RAK Airways with its operational certificate, Crown Prince Sheikh Saud bin Saqr Al Qasimi said the new airline would help put the emirate on the tourist map and serve as a boost to the economy.

"RAK Airways will help enhance the profile of Ras Al Khaimah as an international tourist destination and will also help in boosting the infrastructural facilities in the emirate," he said.

Though discussed for quite some time, it was only in the middle of last year that a full feasibility study into launching a new national airline was undertaken. As such, the launch of RAK Airways has taken place in a remarkably short time and is a testament to the government's commitment to reinvigorate the emirate's tourism industry.

On March 4, Sheikh Salem Bin Sultan Al Qasimi, chairman of the RAK department of civil aviation, announced the airline would take to the skies in May, initially flying routes to Mumbai, Delhi, Thiruvananthapuram, Kochi and Bangalore in India and Tehran, Isfahan and Bandar Abbas in Iran.

Short-term expansion plans foresee the extension of routes to Bangladesh, the Philippines, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Egypt, Lebanon and other Gulf Co-operation Council countries. Within three years, RAK Airways intends to operate flights to Russia and other Commonwealth of Independent States countries, as well as Germany, France, Italy, the UK and Scandinavia.

Initially, the airline will operate using two Boeing 757-200 aircraft leased from Spanish carrier Iberia, adding at least another four leased planes to the fleet over the next three years before buying its own aircraft.

With start-up capital of $230m, the private joint stock company is incorporated in the RAK Investment Authority Free Zone, allowing it to take advantage of tax and trade incentives offered by the government.

The launch of the new airline has not been without teething problems. Initial plans were for flights to commence in January. However, this was pushed back to February and then March. As recently as March 1, airline officials were saying operations would start in April, though just days later May was set as the date for the first take off.

At the beginning of March, Khater Massaad, the managing director of RAK Airways, announced that the airline's CEO, Jack Romero, had been dismissed as a result of the ongoing delays.

"There are a couple of things that haven't gone as expected and by common agreement with the board and Jack Romero, it was decided he would leave the company," Massaad said.

Kishu Teckchandani, an aviation expert with experience of airline start-ups, has been hired as Romero's replacement, with the Indian national expected to take up his appointment before the middle of the month.

However, despite the delays, RAK Airways already has plans for further expansion, with a dedicated cargo division due to start operating within four years using its own management team and aircraft. Officials are also looking into joining one of the global airline alliances to boost growth and expand coverage.

Though starting small, RAK Airways has high-flying ambitions and has mapped out a flight path for the future that it hopes will see it competing with the region's major players in a matter of years.

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