Max Kingsley-Jones/BAHRAIN

With increasing fragmentation in the Gulf market, the key airlines - Emirates, Gulf Air and Qatar Airways - are examining their future partnership strategies and flirting with the global alliance groupings.

Meanwhile, Oman Air is establishing a regional shuttle and seeking co-operation, rather than confrontation, with its neighbouring nations' carriers.

Gulf Air, based in Bahrain and jointly owned by the governments of Abu Dhabi, Bahrain, Oman and Qatar, is coming under fire from the latter state's rapidly expanding private carrier, Qatar Airways. According to Qatar Airways chief executive Akbar Al-Baker, the six-year-old Doha-based airline is poised to become formally government controlled, and designated as the flag carrier of Qatar, a position now held by Gulf Air.

Qatar operates a regional network around the Gulf, and longer-haul services to Asia, Europe and the Indian subcontinent. With neither the Star Alliance nor oneworld having yet designated a partner in the region, Qatar Airways is keen to fill the void.

"We have a codeshare with [Star Partner] Lufthansa on our Munich route," says Al-Baker. "It is our eventual aim to become Star's partner in the Gulf." He says that talks on extending the ties with Lufthansa, which could lead to a link with the Star Alliance, will begin later this year. Meanwhile, Gulf Air has recently revived its presence in the US market with a codeshare deal on American Airlines flights between London and New York Kennedy, Chicago and Miami. Gulf Air suspended its own services to the USA several years ago.

Gulf Air's recently appointed manager for alliance development and interline, Brian McElligott, says the carrier now "-has a very close relationship with American". He adds that an extension to the codeshare is being studied, which could result in three more US destinations being added shortly.

McElligott cautions, however, that, despite these strong links to American, Gulf Air "-is not heading in the oneworld direction yet, but we know its there".

Although it is undertaking significant expansion, Muscat-based Oman Air says it has no intention of confronting Emirates or Gulf Air. The airline says that it wants to codeshare with either, whenever and wherever possible, and Gulf Air confirms that it is examining potential co-operation.

Oman Air recently launched a shuttle operation from its base in Muscat to Abu Dhabi, Doha and Dubai, using new ATR 42-500s, and hopes to gain approval to serve Bahrain as well. It believes that once its new shuttle network has been established, codeshare deals should "-fall into place" with Emirates and Gulf Air.

Emirates chief director Tim Clark confirms that a tie-up is being examined which could see Oman Air taking over Emirates' Dubai-Muscat operations entirely.

Clark believes it is logical for the Gulf carriers to co-operate in certain areas. He says: "There a lot of things [the Gulf carriers] could do together-Gulf Air, like us and [our partner] Air Lanka, is building up a large fleet of Rolls-Royce-powered A330-200s, which provides opportunities for joint maintenance." Clark adds, however, that he is "-perplexed at the current bout of 'alliance mania'".

While he is a proponent of codeshares (which Emirates already has with members of both global groupings), Clark has rejected offers to join a major alliance, as he believes aligning with one block "-closes too many doors".

Source: Flight International