Comment: Could Gulf carriers become serious predators?

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When it comes to big aircraft order splashes at air shows, Gulf carriers are the current masters. But as these fledgling nations incubate carriers aimed at aiding their rise, when they are all grown up could they become serious global predators?

It's the quiet ones you've got to look out for. In that case, it will be as well to look out for Sheikh Ahmed bin Saeed Al-Maktoum, the softly spoken chairman and overseer of the rise of Emirates Airlines over the past two decades.

He has the calm assurance that comes with high position - he is a member of Dubai's ruling family - and the confidence that comes with the success of helping mastermind the emergence of this tiny emirate into a global powerhouse.

Asked at the recent Farnborough air show if Dubai's new low-cost start-up will take after either the Southwest or JetBlue model, he smiled benevolently, and said: "It will be our own model and it's called FlyDubai." His order for 54 Boeing 737s was the start of a ­frenetic first day at the show. It was also overshadowed by much-hyped orders from Abu Dhabi's Etihad ­Airways worth some $21 billion for 100 new Airbus and Boeing jetliners.

Even as record oil prices and a global economic malaise grip most, the bald facts support these bullish moves, at least for now. As this year's Airline Business world traffic rankings show, Middle East carriers grew by some 18% in 2007, nearly more than double any other. Revenues for the region's carriers in 2007 rose by a quarter. Emirates itself saw its revenues break the $10 billion mark. It is now among just 16 carriers in the world with revenues at this high water level.

Qatar Airways, based in Doha just 400km due west of Dubai, saw its revenues climb a staggering 40% to $2.7 billion last year, while youngster ­Etihad nearly doubled its revenues to $1.5 billion. Few should doubt the determination of these Arab states to support their flag carriers as the air bridge for their nation building.

Emirates has done this profitably for several years, while Qatar Airways is targeting 2011 to break even and ­Etihad has a similar timetable in mind.

One thing all have in common is a belief that their fantastic plans are anything but reckless. "We have a huge pressure from our owners to make profits and Qatar Airways will not buy airplanes unless we feel it is absolutely necessary and for the sake of establishing a strong hub in our region and that we have the passengers that will fill those airplanes," Akbar Al Baker, the airline's chief executive, said at July's Farnborough air show.

In many ways these Gulf nations are following Singapore's model of developing a diverse and successful city state. And for now their airlines are focused on supporting this drive. For many rivals this determination at home is frightening enough. Eventually though their local growth will slow and there will be a need to turn their attention outwards.

Singapore Airlines has tried it of course, with poor results. A venture into New Zealand with a stake in the national carrier was a flop, while its purchase of a 49% stake in Virgin Atlantic has to date produced little in the way of returns and few synergies either on a market or operational basis. Now it is more wisely trying something closer to home by trying to ­partner with China Eastern Airlines.

The first airline migration of Emirates overseas has had mixed results too. Its decade long management deal with SriLankan Airlines is now over, and it is looking to sell its 43% stake in the carrier. Dubai's ambitions extend past airlines into aerospace as well. Dubai Aerospace Enterprise is only two years old but already counts an aircraft lessor and airline engineering businesses in its portfolio. Both DAE and Abu Dhabi's Airports Company plan significant overseas forays.

On the airline front, the most natural direction for Gulf carriers to look is east to India. Traffic between the regions is booming as markets begin to deregulate. But bolder moves further afield could easily be on the radar in the ­coming decade.

One of the Gulf region's popular emblems is the falcon, with the ­peregrine falcon a particular favourite. The word peregrine derives from the Latin word for wanderer or pilgrim: an apt link with this month's comment. This bird is also a predator. You have been warned.

For video interviews with Etihad chief executive James Hogan and Qatar Airways chief executive Akbar Al Baker visit flightglobal.com/videos