Greece’s demise in the last few years has provided a boost for airlines connecting Athens with Hellenic outposts around the world via the Persian Gulf, while tapping demand from business travelers hunting for trade in far-flung regions.
With direct services in short supply since the breakdown of flag carrier Olympic Airways, Qatar Airways and Emirates of Dubai are mopping up so-called friends-and-family bookings. Emirates offers daily flights between Athens and Dubai using Boeing Co. 777-300ER aircraft, while Qatar Air deploys smaller planes but offers more frequencies on its Athens-Doha route, with three flights a day available from June 1.
“Greece is popular because of the traffic flows of the Greek diaspora,” said Hubert Frach, Emirates’s sales chief for the Americas, Europe, Africa and Russia. “Links between Greece and emerging markets are growing as the economic downturn is forcing companies to look beyond traditional regions.”
The location of the Gulf means eastbound flights to onward destinations such as Australia, home to the second-largest overseas Greek population, are favored, though Emirates is also examining direct flights from Athens to North America, where connectivity is patchy outside the summer months. A combination of favorable ticket prices and close to 90 percent occupancy, 10 points higher than the Emirates average, makes Athens one of the carrier’s top routes, Frach said.
The passenger tally on the service reached 224,000 in the year through March, swollen by double-daily services during some weeks last summer, Frach said. Carrying seafarers for Greece’s shipping industry is also lucrative, the executive said in an interview.
Capital controls in Greece this week that limit cash withdrawals and online bank transactions have thrown travel into disarray. Ryanair Holdings Plc, the Irish low-cost carrier that serves 11 destinations in Greece, said it’s letting customers buy tickets in cash for the time being.
Travel via the Gulf allows for direct onward services to a host of Asia-Pacific destinations, making it preferable to flying via more traditional hubs in London, Paris and Frankfurt.
Extra services enhance connections to forward flights, with passengers transiting through the Gulf to and from Greek population centers such as Sydney, Melbourne and South Africa. About 11 million people of Greek descent live beyond the Mediterranean, according to official government figures.
Athens has flights to just six cities beyond Europe and the Middle East, according to its website. In Asia, only Beijing and Singapore have direct services, leaving the rest of the continent open to Qatar Air, Emirates and Turkish Airlines, which is building a Gulf-style mega-hub in Istanbul. Qatar Air will offer 19,000 seats to Greece next month, versus 13,000 at Emirates and 29,000 at Turkish Air.
The biggest Greek airline today is Aegean Airlines SA, a former regional carrier that expanded in the wake of the Olympic Airways collapse in 2009 and went on to absorb Olympic Air SA, a rump operation from the former flag carrier, in 2013.
Following the success of Emirates’s Athens services, the Greek government has asked the Mideast carrier to consider extending the flights to the U.S. using so-called fifth freedom rights, Emirates President Tim Clark said last month. Its Dubai- Milan route already continues onwards from Italy.
Frach said there are no immediate plans for Greece-U.S. flights, while adding that Emirates will “work closely” with the Greek authorities to assess possible opportunities.
Only New York and Philadelphia are currently served direct from Athens, by Delta Air Lines Inc. and American Airlines Group Inc. respectively, with other locations requiring a stop in West European hubs. That’s “definitely not popular with the Greek diaspora in the U.S., or those U.S. clients wanting to join cruise ships in Piraeus,” Clark said.
Greece — which lured 22 million visitors in 2014, twice its own population — also remains a “powerful magnet for tourists,” with Emirates seeing demand from China, the Indian subcontinent, Australia and the Middle East, Frach said
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