Airlines operating flights to the Middle East and North Africa could face losses this year, as tourism slumps and oil prices surge amid political uncertainty and escalating violence.
Libyan protestors are resisting desperate attempts by Muammar Gaddafi to crush a revolt demanding an end to his 41-year rule. This follows protests in nearby Egypt and Tunisia where mass movements toppled entrenched leaders.
"If the unrest continues, it might reach a point where airlines cannot fly into these countries," said Gunther Matschnigg, senior vice president for safety, operations and infrastructure at International Air Transport Association (IATA).
He said Gulf-based carriers and other European airlines operating into the region will be affected in such a scenario.
Emirates, British Airways, Lufthansa and others suspended flights to the capital city Tripoli with immediate effect on Tuesday.
European tour operators and airlines cancelled several trips to Cairo last month, as angry protesters took to the streets to oust Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, dealing a blow to a tourism industry that provides about one in eight jobs in the country.
"Countries like Egypt and Tunisia are popular among tourists and people in these countries also depend on tourism. Unrest in the Middle East will affect the traffic growth," said Matschnigg.
Egypt Air said this month that it has offered to lease out 25 of its newest aircraft as tourists stay away from the country.
Emirates, one of the Arab world's largest carriers, reduced its flight frequency from 13 flights weekly to and from Cairo to seven weekly. Others airlines are also known to have reduced their flights to Egypt.
OIL PRICES SURGE
IATA's director general Giovanni Bisignani said on Wednesday that airlines are "very challenged" by oil price rises amid unrest in the Middle East.
The turmoil in Libya, which pumps nearly 2 percent of world oil output, sent Brent crude prices above USD$108 a barrel to a two and a half year high on Monday.
"Assuming the situation continues, the oil prices are expected to touch USD$115 to USD$120 per barrel within the next two weeks, which would result in losses for global airlines for the current year," said John Siddharth, an industry analyst for South Asia and Middle East at Frost & Sullivan.
IATA's Matschnigg said rising oil prices may compel the aviation sector to think about fuel surcharges, thereby increasing ticket costs.
"If prices go higher there will be a discussion about surcharges," said Matschnigg.
"Several airlines have hedged for their fuel needs but not all. It all depends on how long this situation will continue."