Late last month, Qatar's Al Baker indicated that the carrier might order the 777X for the first time, but cautioned that would happen only if the time were right. He nevertheless confirmed that Qatar will place an aircraft order at the Dubai Airshow. Al Baker also hinted that the airline would be interested in a further A350 stretch if it meets its payload/range requirements.
Qatar is the only of the three big Persian Gulf carriers that has large outstanding orders for narrowbodies. The airline is awaiting delivery of 31 A320s (among them, the first A320neo) and 20 A321s. But Qatar will also receive 43 A350-900s, 37 -1000s, 10 A380s and 22 more Boeing 787-8s, plus five 777-300ERs and three 777Fs.
Nowhere is the importance of the Persian Gulf carriers more visible than in the Airbus A380 program. The three airlines alone account for almost exactly half of the official order backlog (73 of 148 aircraft). If all of the 23 aircraft that are unlikely to ever be delivered (to Kingfisher Airlines, Hong Kong Airlines, Air Austral and Virgin Atlantic) are taken off the official list, it becomes even more obvious that the A380 program would be in even deeper trouble without the three Middle Eastern airlines.
Emirates, in particular, has been the single most important advocate of the aircraft, given that it is building its Dubai hub around the efficiencies and volumes the large jet provides. It is also the only carrier at this point that wants Airbus to go ahead with the A380-900 and stretch the aircraft further. While such a project would certainly only be considered for the period well beyond 2020, it now looks that Airbus will study upgrading and improving the existing -800 before considering an even larger aircraft.
Although it would be inaccurate to identify Emirates as the only driver behind the program—support for the launch of the original A380 had been broad inside Airbus in the late 1990s—the case illustrates that it can be dangerous to become infatuated with the requirements of one particular airline. Given sluggish demand for the type elsewhere, Airbus can only hope that Emirates finds a place for more of the aircraft. Clark wants to buy another 20 A380s if Dubai International Airport can accommodate them.
The A350-1000 is the most obvious example of Persian Gulf carriers' intervention in the design process. Emirates, notably, doubted that its engines were powerful enough and that the aircraft would have the required range. Along with Qatar Airways, the airline put significant pressure on Airbus. “Some say the A350-1000 needs to take on more thrust and weight, and I believe that to be the case,” Emirates' Clark said before the latest redesign. And Al Baker wanted “increased takeoff weight and increased range.”
The two got it their way. Airbus delayed the aircraft's entry into service to allow time for Rolls-Royce to raise engine thrust from 93,000 to 97,000 lb. The Persian Gulf carriers' appetite for larger aircraft has also been a factor in Airbus's notable lack of interest in building the -800, the smallest A350 version.
Since the 777X will be launched largely on the strength of Persian Gulf carriers' orders, industry sources point at their massive influence in the aircraft's design. This is most clear for the smaller -8X, which Boeing pitches as an aircraft roughly the size of the current 777-300ER, but with extreme range capabilities.
Boeing's 777 development strategy shows how requirements for a growing part of the long-haul aircraft market have changed. Originally designed primarily as a DC-10 replacement for domestic U.S. carriers, the big Boeing twin swiftly evolved into a long-range workhorse for the world's airlines before the influence of mainly Middle Eastern and Asian operators led to the dominance of the current 777-200LR/300ER long-range generation. This process is on the cusp of evolving to the next phase with the 777-8X/9X.