June 18, 2012
Credit: Photo Credit: Reuters/Landov File Photo
Jens Flottau, Adrian Schofield and Bradley Perrett/Beijing
With huge losses for European airlines and growth in the Asia-Pacific region, the pattern of the power shift in the air transport industry is firmly set. But Middle Eastern airlines are also driving consolidation and securing key positions that give them a tight grip on the industry's general agenda.
The new balance of power comes in several shapes and sometimes is apparent in tiny instances, such as occurred on the sidelines of last week's International Air Transport Association (IATA) annual general meeting in Beijing. But all of them send a strong message. Lufthansa CEO Christoph Franz has been the most vocal opponent of the three big Persian Gulf carriers— Emirates, Etihad Airways and Qatar Airways—criticizing them for being state-owned and subsidized. He believes that the Persian Gulf carriers enjoy other unfair advantages such as access to export financing, low or no taxes and cheap labor. Franz's rage culminated in the statement that the Persian Gulf countries are a “sandpit with money.”
But several high-level diplomatic interventions and a lunch date with Emirates President Tim Clark later, Franz now says he has “high respect for the entrepreneurial achievements” of his new competitors.
Their influence is stronger because Emirates, Etihad and Qatar continue to grow relentlessly, while other regions, and Europe in particular, are suffering. The shift may even lead to new partnerships in some cases. For example, Qantas has fought against the three exhaustively to protect its “Kangaroo route” between Australia and Europe, once a lucrative business. But this month, the Australian carrier said it will take a full-year net loss. Investor shock drove Qantas stock down 32%, shaving $1 billion from the company's market capitalization.
Qantas CEO Alan Joyce, who was still elected as IATA's new chairman of the board of governors, is under immense pressure to deliver improved results. But Emirates was quick to say it is interested in a “commercial arrangement” with Qantas, as Clark said here, noting that Emirates does not want to buy a stake in the largest Australian airline. As the three Persian Gulf carriers are offering attractive connecting services through their Middle East hubs, a deal with Emirates would be similar to admitting defeat for Qantas.
Emirates does, however, want access to local feed in Australia, particularly now that its rival Etihad is picking up a 4.99% stake in Virgin Australia. Etihad CEO James Hogan would like to increase the shareholding significantly, with the deep commercial alliance between the two that includes Etihad's wet-lease of a Virgin Australia Boeing 777-300ER.
Etihad is in negotiations with Air France over a possible code-sharing agreement, and it also has stakes in Air Seychelles, Air Berlin and Aer Lingus, and its Middle Eastern competitors are considering buying into other carriers, too. Qatar Airways has invested in Cargolux and was close to purchasing Spanair before pulling out of talks early this year. Turkish Airlines, fast-growing and ideally situated between Europe, Asia and Africa, is on the verge of taking a minority stake in LOT Polish Airlines. It is also imaginable that a Persian Gulf carrier could buy the International Airlines Group (IAG) stake that Spain's troubled financial institution Bankia might be forced to sell, a purchase no one would have foreseen a few years ago.