By Neil Ford
The Gulf’s biggest airlines are enjoying bumper revenues and expanding rapidly to take advantage of rising global passenger numbers. The region’s big three – Emirates, Qatar Airways and Etihad Airways, are competing for regional dominance and all are making the most of the region’s geographical location at the crossroads of air routes between Asia, Europe and Africa.
The big three now all have sufficient financial muscle and presence to be attractive partners for airlines in other parts of the world. Qatar Airways joined the OneWorld Alliance last year.
However, to date, Emirates has restricted itself to a bilateral agreement with Qantas, the national carrier of Australia, while Etihad has adopted a slightly different approach, seeking to expand its global presence by concluding alliances with other airlines, it has also bought stakes in other operators, including a 49% share in Air Serbia and 24% equity in Jet Airways India.
New routes planned
Judged by most criteria, including in terms of the number of flights and available seats, Emirates is bigger than Qatar Airways, which in turn overshadows Etihad. Qatar Airways does, however, fly to the most destinations. The Qatari national carrier has expanded its operations with the Middle East in recent years, adding 11 new routes between 2009 and 2012, including three to destinations in Iraq.
It has therefore consolidated its position as the biggest airline within the region with a substantially wider network than either of its rivals.
A buoyant market
A recent report from the International Air Transportation Association (IATA) revealed that Middle Eastern airlines collectively enjoyed a 12.1% increase in passenger traffic in 2013 in comparison with 2012, the highest rate of any region in the world. IATA argued that this growth was the result of continued economic expansion in the region. This expansion is reflected in recent and expected aircraft purchases. Boeing forecasts that an incredible 2,610 new aircraft will be ordered in the Middle East over the next 20 years, with a combined value of $550 billion. Indeed, Boeing and Saudi Arabian Airlines recently signed a wide-ranging agreement covering both commercial and military aircraft.
Despite strong growth, some industry analysts still consider the region is operating too many airlines. Hussain Dabbas, IATA Africa & Middle East regional vice president, observed: “Consolidation in this part of the world has not yet taken place but it should. We have too many small airlines that will find it difficult to survive with the pressure and the expansion of airlines in the region.” However, he reserved this advice for only those companies not supported by governments with deep pockets, adding: “Countries might cut subsidies for building roads but they will keep the national airline alive because it is a symbol of the country.” Possessing a national flag carrier has long been a sign of national sovereignty but this usually involves subsidising the airline in question.
Boosting passenger numbers
Rising air traffic volumes have resulted in congestion in Gulf airspace, particularly above the UAE. As a result, the UAE government is seeking to implement improvements in conjunction with neighbouring states, including the use of military airspace and greater coordination across the region. Mohammed Ahli, the director general of the Dubai Civil Aviation Authority (DCAA) told journalists: “By 2020, there won’t be a problem in air space for the region and the UAE.”
The international angle
Foreign airlines are also increasing their operations within the region. British Airways has increased its capacity in the Middle East by 40% since 2009, particularly in Saudi Arabia and the UAE.
Other factors suggest that expansion will continue, particularly because of the growing maturity of some emerging markets. Many airlines are keen to expand their Chinese operations. Etihad already flies to Beijing, Chengdu and Hong Kong; and has signed cooperation agreements with both Hainan Airlines and China Eastern Airlines Corporation. Aside from the big three, Air Arabia is also considering launching flights to China, taking advantage of the UAE’s geographical location to connect European and Chinese cities.