There is little doubting the ambitions of the giant Middle Eastern airlines, but recent large plane orders demonstrated just how aggressively these carriers plan to compete in coming years.
The three airlines — Emirates, Etihad Airlines and Qatar Airways — all based in the same corner of the Persian Gulf, already operate more wide-body airplanes than all the American carriers put together.
But last week, at the Dubai Air Show, they announced plans to buy 350 more long-range planes from Boeing and Airbus, with orders valued at a record $162 billion and deliveries extending well into the next decade.
Emirates alone ordered 150 of the new Boeing 777X, with an option for 50 more, as well as an additional 50 Airbus A380s, the biggest passenger jet. It was billed as “the largest ever aircraft order in civil aviation,” a commitment worth $99 billion at list prices.
The size of these orders stunned aviation watchers. It provided a sense of the scale the carriers are after and dwarfs anything American airlines have planned.
American Airlines, for instance, ordered 600 planes for the next decade to replace its aging fleet, but the bulk of those are single-aisle planes for the domestic market, not twin-aisle ocean-crossing giants.
Emirates, established in 1985 with one jet plane, has been the main driver of this growth, putting Dubai on the map as one the world’s biggest air travel hubs.
The airline, which carried 39 million passengers last year, aims for 70 million annual passengers by 2020, according to its chief executive, Tim Clark. This would make Emirates the biggest airline by international passengers, he said in a speech last month.
Their strategy is simple, according to Richard Aboulafia, an aviation analyst at the Teal Group in Fairfax, Va., “They want to take over the world,” he said.
Emirates has thrived by building routes to developing countries long neglected by traditional carriers and by providing an alternative to local airlines — connecting Europe and India, Africa and Russia, China and the Middle East.
Instead of flying through traditional hubs like London or Frankfurt, these new routes run through Dubai, which the airline has turned into a global connecting hub thanks to the backing of the city’s ruling family.
The success of the Dubai model has ignited the envy of its neighbors, who have sought to copy it with their own global airlines. At the air show, Qatar’s flag carrier, Qatar Airways, said it would buy 50 Boeing 777X jets — a new aircraft that should be available by 2020.
Etihad, based in neighboring Abu Dhabi and the smallest of the three, ordered 143 airplanes at the air show, including 30 Boeing 787s and 50 Airbus A350s.
Their ambitions have sent ripples of concerns among their competitors, more recently in the United States, where the biggest pilots’ union, the Air Line Pilots Association, called these airlines an “economic threat” to American carriers and their employees. The industry’s trade group, Airlines for America, said airlines in the United States cannot compete fairly against rivals that benefit from government subsidies.
“I can understand the frustration felt by the legacy carriers whose lunch is being eaten,” Mr. Aboulafia said, referring to Delta Air Lines, United Airlines and what will be a combined American Airlines and US Airways. “The best-case scenario for them is that all the growth goes through the Gulf and everyone else makes do with a stagnant market.”
But while some analysts say these worries might be overblown, carriers from the United States were unwilling to take any chances after seeing how disruptive Emirates has been for well-established airlines like Air France, Lufthansa or Air India.
“They’ve watched Asian and European airlines whistling past the graveyard, and now Emirates and the other Gulf carriers are getting uncomfortably close to home,” Mr. Aboulafia said. Emirates operates about 3,200 flights a week to 135 cities and 76 countries. It started flying to 20 new destinations since the beginning of last year and plans to add service to Conakry, Guinea; Sialkot, Pakistan; and Kabul, Afghanistan, before the end of the year.
“Being the biggest airline in the world is not really the end goal,” Mr. Clark said in the speech last month. “Our aim has always been to connect travelers from around the world to Dubai, and other destinations with just a single stop via our hub.”
The airline is expanding its presence in North America where it has made significant inroads last year, opening new routes from Dubai to Dallas, Seattle and Washington. It has also increased the frequency of its flights to New York. It also serves Houston, Los Angeles and San Francisco.
Qatar Airways, which joined the Oneworld Alliance with American Airlines, started service to Chicago recently from Doha.
It recently inaugurated a new flight between Kennedy International Airport in New York and Malpensa Airport in Milan, which allows passengers from the United States to fly to Europe on Emirates without having to fly through Dubai.
The move is viewed with concern by American carriers, which consider it as a direct attack on their market, and it is being challenged in an Italian court by several airlines including Alitalia and Delta Air Lines.
“The three have caused consternation,” according to a recent report by CAPA, an aviation consulting firm, referring to the big Gulf carriers. “No doubt that after this spate of orders, competitors are worried now that projected growth targets in abstract percentage terms have been translated into metal.”
All this is reviving recurring complaints by traditional airlines about what they view as unfair competition by state-owned rivals. United States airlines are drumming up political support to oppose plans to open up a customs and immigration pre-clearance facility in Abu Dhabi — similar to those that exist in Nassau, Bahamas, or at most airports in Canada — arguing that it would give an unfair advantage to Etihad, which is based there.
Rivals also object to what they view as an unfair trade advantage that benefits foreign airlines seeking financing guarantees or preferential loans to purchase Boeing planes. These favorable terms, meant to promote American exports, are not available to domestic airlines.
Still, few doubt that Emirates is a force to stay. It now has a total of 385 aircraft on order, including 101 A380s, at a total value of $166 billion. It currently flies 39 A380s and now accounts for well over half of all A380 orders — and has been instrumental in rescuing that aircraft program.
By contrast, Air France, Lufthansa and British Airways fly a combined 22 A380s and do not plan to significantly increase their orders anytime soon.
But while the numbers are impressive, some analysts expressed skepticism about the capacity of the gulf carriers — and particularly Emirates — to sustain such growth rates.
“My jaw dropped,” Mike Boyd, an aviation consultant, said after he heard about Emirates’ order for the extra A380s. “The A380 is a wonderful piece of machinery, but there are not a lot of airports where it can land, and not many routes that can take that many seats. They will be searching for routes to make it work.”
(Jad Mouawad - The New York Times)