ANALYSIS: How the Gulf carriers are reshaping airliner design

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It should be no surprise that the Gulf’s mega-carriers – and ­Emirates in particular – played such a huge role in the launch of ­Boeing’s 777X family at November’s Dubai air show.

The region’s carriers have of course been at the forefront of the launches of the last couple of large all-new widebodies. Emirates was the launch customer for the A380 and Qatar Airways for the A350 and, lo, they’re all there at the birth of Boeing’s new big twin.

Lufthansa was the first to announce a commitment for the 777X back in September, but the reality is that it is Emirates – ably assisted by Qatar ­Airways and Etihad – in the driving seat on the 777X.

The clout that the Gulf carriers now yield in “spec-ing” their new toys must frustrate the hell out of some of the legacy players. Their exacting requirements for all-year round very long-range performance from their Arabian hubs creates an aircraft with more capability than most European and US airlines require. Capability, in terms of additional weight and engine power, that these other airlines then find themselves burdened with.

And to rub salt into the wound, the design influence the Gulf carriers now have ensures that these airliners come with the performance that allows them to serve almost anywhere from the Gulf, thereby providing the ultimate competitive advantage over their old-school rivals.

But recent history shows the Gulf carriers don’t always have it their own way. Take Airbus’s 2011 redesign of the A350-1000 – which all three Gulf carriers have ordered. The revamp, which centred around more thrust and weight, went down like a lead balloon in Dubai and Doha. Emirates Airline president Tim Clark was frustrated by the fact that Airbus had implemented the revisions without dialogue. Qatar ­Airways boss Akbar Al Baker was even more candid, threatening to ­cancel his launch order and saying “Airbus is not listening to us”.

Airbus tactfully avoided any public row with its customers, but quietly explained that the changes would ensure the -1000 appealed to the world market. Its decision seems to have been vindicated, given the ­subsequent sales success that the revamped variant has enjoyed.

Perhaps that reticence to “listen” to its Gulf customers on the -1000 can be explained by unhappy memories of the A340-600. Egged on by Clark, ­Airbus developed a high gross weight version of the big quad-jet, only to have Emirates later cancel its order in favour of the 777-300ER instead.

There’s no doubting that Boeing has been fully engaged with all its ­clients on the 777X. Clark has made no secret of his involvement with the 777X’s development – he first ­mentioned an improved 777 variant to Flightglobal at the 2007 Dubai show, when Emirates unveiled a huge order for A350s. “It does not address the retirement of our 777-300ERs post-2016 and we continue to press Boeing for a replacement for those aircraft, despite the A350 order,” he said.

Clark is like a modern day Juan Trippe, the Pan Am founder who steered the development of the original Jumbo Jet with the famous line that if Boeing built it, Pan Am would buy it. The intriguing dynamic in Dubai was the revelation that Clark was acting not just for Emirates, but also on behalf of Gulf rival Qatar Airways.

The Doha-based airline allowed Emirates to represent its interests in 777X technical talks, and their orders were announced at a joint press conference where the usuually outspoken chief Akbar Al Baker shared the stage with Emirates chairman Sheikh Ahmed Bin Saeed Al Maktoum.

“[Al Baker] was satisfied that, if it was good for us, it would be good for him,” says Clark.

The ­relationship between manufacturer and customer that created the 747 ­arguably produced greater ­benefits for other carriers than it ever achieved for Pan Am.

Half a century on, that will not be repeated with the 777X.