Shifting sands

This first appeared as a Comment in the 26 November issue of Flight International

How powerful are the Gulf carriers over the definition of new widebody commercial aircraft? It is not a new question, but it has never been more relevant.
It’s worth remembering that it was only two years ago when Boeing hailed an order from Emirates for 50 777-300ERs as the single-largest deal by dollar value in Boeing’s nearly 100-year history. Then, bang! Two years later the same airline trumps that with a commitment for 150 combined 777-8Xs and -9Xs.
It’s a working dynamic that is perhaps impolite for Airbus and Boeing to acknowledge. Even so, the less influential colleagues of the major Gulf carriers in other regions have some reason to be thankful as the centre of gravity for widebodies appears to have shifted from Asia to the Middle East in the last decade.
There is, after all, a time-honoured model for Boeing collaborating with an economically dominant airline. Once, a single word from Pan Am founder Juan Trippe could decide the fate of a Boeing design. That partnership produced the 747, which arguably produced greater benefits for other carriers than it ever achieved for Pan Am. A single airline like Emirates – for all of its economic clout – does not come close to matching Pan Am’s historical grip on Boeing’s product strategy.
But Emirates may be more influential today than United Airlines was 20 years ago in defining the original 777 family.  It also helps other airlines that the carriers ordering the most widebodies are based in a region and a market that demands the most performance from an aircraft, in terms of take-off thrust and range. The 777X clearly benefits from Emirates’ need for an aircraft that can take off with a full payload in Dubai’s hottest weather.
At a time of rising complaints about the Gulf carriers’ unique financial and operational advantages, however, some competitors will no doubt be jealous over any perceived bias in Boeing’s aircraft designs.
But for carriers unhappy about the current situation, the options are few. No other single operator can muster the economic backing to challenge their order clout. To move the centre of gravity elsewhere would require something like a consortium order placed by one of the three global alliances, themselves full of cash-strapped legacy airlines.
Meanwhile, Gulf carriers will continue dominating widebody product strategy of both aircraft makers until their backlogs run dry, and that seems unlikely for at least a decade.



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