November 11, 2013
For more than a decade, Persian Gulf carriers have collectively helped shape the long-range airliner product development strategy for both Airbus and Boeing and the world's high-capacity air transport markets. With the advent of the Boeing 777X and possible Airbus A350, and A380 upgrades, their influence looks like it will only grow.
The impact of airlines such as Emirates, Etihad and Qatar Airways on performance requirements has therefore evolved into something considerably greater than the sum of their parts. As a result, even though the airlines of the region in themselves represent a sizeable chunk of both the Airbus and Boeing market forecasts, their influence extends out of all proportion around the globe. Having placed themselves at the nexus of an ever-growing network of interconnecting global routes, they have driven airframe and engine manufacturers to reach new levels of range and payload capability.
Because of the geographic location of their hubs, the Middle Eastern carriers require more range than most others. A flight to New York is not an eight-hr. mission like it would be for Lufthansa or Air France, but can be a trip in excess of 14 hr. against winter headwinds. Trips to the U.S. West Coast can reach 17 hr., much like flights to Latin American destinations, which are increasingly linked to Middle East networks. Carriers claim they can connect any two markets on the globe with only one stop somewhere in the Persian Gulf region, and they need aircraft with long legs to keep that promise.
But Airbus and Boeing risk having to produce aircraft that are designed only for a part of the market, with European, U.S. and Asian airlines having to deal with heavier and more capable aircraft than they require. And the manufacturers have to avoid at all costs developing more slow-sellers like the Boeing 777-200LR or the Airbus A340-500. The second life of the A330 can partially be explained by the fact that the aircraft is all many airlines need as far as range is concerned. Lufthansa and Air France are flying the aircraft to the U.S. West Coast and Latin America. And the recently launched Boeing 787-10 is targeting that—arguably large—segment as well.
In particular, Emirates and Qatar Airways are not only influential in terms of aircraft design because of their large orderbooks. They are also run by charismatic executives—Tim Clark and Akbar Al Baker—who have been very public about their aircraft requirements. That is unusual in an industry that is used to confidential, behind-the-scenes conversations. Etihad's James Hogan is not publicly challenging the manufacturers to the same extent as his colleagues.
In spite of Qatar's and Etihad's efforts to catch up, Emirates still has by far the largest orderbook. The airline has outstanding orders for 70 A350-1000s, 53 A380s and 61 Boeing 777-300ERs. Emirates is also widely expected to sign up for at least 100 Boeing 777Xs at this month's Dubai Airshow.
Etihad's order backlog is relatively small by Persian Gulf carrier standards. It comprises seven A320s and A321s each, two A330-200s, one A330F, 12 A350-1000s, 10 A380s, 41 Boeing 787-9s and one 777-300ER. However, Etihad is also seen as another candidate for a huge 777X order.