IN FOCUS: The Gulf airlines' drive into Latin America

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Latin America has been looming ever larger on the radars of the Gulf's network carriers, with Emirates and Qatar Airways already serving the region direct from the Middle East hubs, and Etihad Airways eyeing a move by the middle of the decade.

The continent may have been the last major population centre to feel the presence of these airlines, but does their arrival represent an opportunity or a threat for the incumbent carriers?

Emirates was the first of the new wave of Gulf carriers to dip its toe into the South American market, when it launched services from its Dubai hub to Sao Paulo in October 2006.

Qatar Airways, located in nearby Doha, Qatar, began its South American adventure in 2010, when it launched services to Sao Paulo, with a tag to Buenos Aires - again using 777-200LRs.

Etihad Airways, the third part of the Gulf network carrier trinity, aims to make its South American debut in 2015, says James Hogan, chief executive of the Abu Dhabi-based airline.

Emirates initially operated its ultra-long range, 266-seat Boeing 777-200LR on the route, but upgraded this year to the larger -300ER - and the Airbus A380 will be next, says Emirates Airline president Tim Clark. "Sao Paulo was meant to have become an A380 service. But we'd need to leave it there for 6h and they simply don't have the space to park it as [Guarulhos International Airport] is so congested. But we'll get there eventually."

Clark said expanding Emirates' penetration into South America is one of the airline's priorities, and two new destinations are already set to come online during the next few months - Rio de Janeiro and Buenos Aires.

The airline has brought Brazil into its Emirates SkyCargo network, which it serves from Dubai, via Frankfurt, through Viracopos-Campinas International Airport, near Sao Paulo.

The Gulf carriers have built their businesses on transit passengers feeding through their Middle East hubs, so they could grab a slice of the east/west traffic flows. However, they all operate outside the global alliances and have been innovative in setting up codeshare and interline agreements in the markets they serve.

Qatar Airways, yet to reveal any further South American expansion, has established ties with local low-cost carrier Gol, which began carrying the Qatar code on flights to 46 of its Brazilian destinations in August. So the arrival of the Gulf airlines could provide an important new feed of traffic to Latin America's carriers.