IN FOCUS: Middle East revenue rise hit by fuel costs

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A strong rise in revenues among the Middle East carriers, led by Emirates, was more than offset by the impact of high fuel prices, which saw overall net profitability tumble into the red. However strong growth and a good hedging policy helped local rival Etihad Airways become profitable for the first time.

Revenue for the Middle East's top 10 airlines increased by around 15% last year, to $41.1 billion. Once again Emirates Group reported the highest figure, contributing more than two-fifths of the total amount.

The Dubai carrier's revenue grew by around 15% in 2011-2012 to reach $18.4 billion on a 10% jump in passenger traffic. But its net profit fell sharply to $441 million as rising fuel costs hit home.

Emirates shared its pain, revealing that its fuel bill increased by 44% to Dh24.3 billion and contributed to a 24% increase in operating costs.

Down the road in Abu Dhabi, Etihad broke into the black for the first time, nine years after launch, with an operating profit (EBIT) of $137 million and a net profit of $14 million, on revenue of $4.1 billion. The airline's chief executive, James Hogan, credits the success to a good fuel-hedging policy, cost control and high load factors.

"It's about brand maturity, network and scale all coming together," he says. "I've moved into profitability and I'll stay there."

Although the three Gulf network carriers are all unaligned from a global alliance perspective, there has been increasing involvement between them and other airlines around the world.

Qatar Airways kick-started this last year with its 35% stake in Cargolux. Etihad has been more prolific of late, concluding a string of share deals, starting last December with the acquisition of a 29% stake in struggling German carrier Air Berlin.

Subsequent deals have seen Etihad acquire small stakes in Aer Lingus and Virgin Australia, as well as take a 40% holding in Air Seychelles.

The thinking behind these deals - and the many codeshare deals it has signed up - is to gain access to new markets "at the end of our network", says Hogan.

Discussions are also being held with Air France-KLM about a codeshare tie-up and perhaps more - although Hogan dismisses talk of a wider partnership agreement as "speculation". While Emirates' anti-alliance position is well documented, the situation with its two rivals is less clear and speculation is rife that, sooner rather than later, Qatar Airways or Etihad will join one of the three global groupings.

Meanwhile, Qatar Airways chief executive Akbar Al Baker is preparing for the opening of the new Doha international airport, which is due to be completed early next year. "It won't be a phased opening, everyone will transfer to the new airport in one go," he says.