The "third force" in the Gulf's global network carrier group laid down its marker at the show, with Etihad Airways announcing orders and commitments worth $43 billion for more than 200 aircraft - the bulk of which are widebodies - for delivery from 2011.

The deal, which comprised 100 firm orders, 55 options and 50 purchase rights, is one of the largest ever.

Etihad now operates 37 aircraft, and has placed firm orders for 55 Airbuses (20 A320s, 25 A350s and 10 A380s) plus 55 options and purchase rights, along with 45 Boeings (10 777-300ERs and 35 787-9s) plus 50 options and purchase rights.

The airline's chief executive James Hogan says the deals come on the back of finalising long-term fleet and network plans: "We've completed our fleet plan out to 2020 and network plan to 2030. The delivery schedule gives us the opportunity to stagger the growth and improve the frequency to develop the network connections over the new Abu Dhabi midfield terminal. We'll be able to take advantage of the ongoing liberalisation in the Indian and Middle Eastern aviation space."

etihad 777-300er 

Hogan says the firm orders will cover growth, while the options and purchase rights give the flexibility to accelerate our growth or substitute existing aircraft. The A380s gives Etihad the ability to focus on slot-constrained airports such as London, New York and Sydney.

The Etihad deal puts the total order firm backlog for the Gulf's three global network carriers - the others are Dubai-based Emirates and Qatar Airways - at more than 400 aircraft. Their combined fleet totals over 200 aircraft. All the airlines have A380s on order - Emirates accounts for a quarter of the giant's entire orderbook, while the three carriers' combined firm backlog for the new A350 and 787 widebodies totals 240 aircraft.

Teal Group's vice-president of analysis Richard Aboulafia says the region's "widebody splurge looks vaguely absurd", but warns that "as long as these countries keep spending on national aviation development plans it's quite serious".

He says that as the airlines are focused more on transit than local origin and destination traffic, the huge fleet-expansion plans "imply a vast market share grab away from legacy international carriers and very likely from the established lessors too. Unless the economics change, or unless the established aviation powers find a way to take trade action, these widebody orders imply a considerable shift of aviation market power towards the Middle East."

However, some local observers question the logic of having two mega-hubs less than 100km (60 miles) apart in the same country. Emirates is already well established as a global network carrier at its Dubai hub, while Etihad is following a similar hub development model down the road at Abu Dhabi.

To see Flight's exclusive video interview with James Hogan visit

Source: Flight International