Clear in its long-held views that life is better outside the global alliances, Emirates created a few waves this year when it linked up with Oneworld founder member and long-time British Airways collaborator, Qantas.
Qatar Airways, meanwhile, has broken ranks and joined the alliance throng, with entry into Oneworld in October. Etihad, meanwhile, has used its expanding “equity alliance” as the cornerstone of a strategy to forge commercial tie-ups with airlines across the globe – and across the alliance spectrum.
Oman Air, sitting at the top of the region’s second division, is ploughing its own furrow and, despite relatively modest ambitions, has significant near-term expansion planned. Gulf Air, once the powerhouse in the region, has restructured around a smaller operation concentrating on a short-haul network within the region, along with a few longer international routes to primary destinations.
Boeing’s new 777X family is odds-on to rack up a lot of business at the air show, and the Gulf carriers are likely to be at the front of the queue for the “big twin” due to debut in 2020. All three airlines have been in negotiations over the type, but warn that deals will only come if the right commercial terms can be agreed.
ALL IN THE TIMING
“We spent the summer working through the technical side of the aeroplane, and from what I can see it looks very good,” says Emirates Airline president Tim Clark.
Speaking two months before the show, Clark said Emirates had only just been given definitive pricing information on the twinjet. He added that the timing of any contract with Boeing would be “when it suits us – it may be the Dubai air show, but if we’re not ready we won’t be doing it”.
Deliveries of Emirates’ existing A380 orderbook of 90 aircraft are due to be complete in November 2017. Growth requirements aside, Emirates will need replacements from 2020 for its early aircraft, as they reach its stipulated retirement age of 12 years.
“There’s an automatic replacement of 90 aircraft, in my view,” says Clark. “If I could find ways and means to get more space [at the Dubai hub] to get them in, we’d like some more.”
And the ability of Dubai International airport (DXB) to keep its capacity growth on pace with Emirates is a moot point. Emirates’ growth and the strong recovery of Dubai as a destination is piling on the pressure, despite an ongoing expansion programme designed to enable the airport handle more than 90 million passengers by 2020.
“The maths tells us that [Dubai will reach that target] four years earlier than we thought we would. So Emirates is busy working on stand choreography in the peaks to maximise the most efficient use of the real estate,” Clark adds.
The all-new airport south of the city, dubbed Dubai World Central (DWC), will take up the load to relieve the pressure on DXB by handling cargo flights and new entrants. “The [strategic plan] 2020 has an amalgam of the two fields, and we could get to 120 million,” says Clark.
The long-term solution for Dubai is “to build the big one at DWC”, says Clark, referring to the proposed six runway/160 million passenger complex.
“If we didn’t have that physical constraint today [at Dubai International] we would have ordered another 30 A380s.Without constraints, we would be able to take many more – I’m assuming that Airbus doesn’t ‘bottle out’ on the A380,” says Clark, adding – with genuine conviction – that if the “big one at DWC” does materialise then Emirates could operate 180 of the Airbus superjumbos.
Qatar Airways’ outspoken boss Akbar Al Baker is notorious for making headlines at air shows, and is likely to be among the big spenders in Dubai. The airline’s ongoing double-digit expansion saw it carry 17.2 million passengers last year, and this is expected to rise a further 13% to 19.5 million this year.
“The biggest challenge is not getting enough aircraft on time,” says Al Baker. “We have a fleet of 129 aircraft and are taking one every 12 days on average. We should have 200 aircraft in less than three years, maybe earlier.”