Persian Gulf Carriers’ Divergent Ways To Grow

By Jens Flottau
Source: Aviation Week & Space Technology

Other than that, there seems to be no stopping the Persian Gulf carriers' expansion. Emirates in 2014 is looking at another year of up to 20% capacity growth. And in spite of the fact that Dubai International Airport is likely to approach by 2016 the capacity ceiling predicted for 2020, there is some hope that Emirates can continue on its current path if a significant number of other airlines move to Dubai's new Al Maktoum International Airport.

Qatar Airways, the second-largest of the three Persian Gulf carriers, also has ambitious short-term goals. It plans to move to the new Hamad International Airport in the first quarter of 2014, once an extensive review of fire-protection measures is completed. Later in the year, Qatar will take delivery of its first of 10 Airbus A380s and first of 80 A350s. Etihad will also soon add two new types to its long-haul fleet, the Boeing 787-9 and A380, of which it has ordered 10 as well.

But as much as the three carriers appear to be in sync, there are still substantial strategic differences between them, which have only recently been unfolding. The strategy changes are based on the fact that Emirates, Qatar Airways and Etihad have all abandoned the idea of going it alone. They have become part of the world air transport system, rather than continuing to be seen as outsiders that other airlines feel the need to fight. The strategic differences mainly lie in how they are partnering with other carriers, instead of trying to operate independently.

Qatar Airways is the only one of the three that is now a member of one of the major global alliances, Oneworld. And one can see why its CEO, Akbar Al Baker, has made that choice. With a fleet of around 130 aircraft, Qatar is much smaller than Emirates, so it has an incentive to grow through partnerships and code-sharing. Also, global alliances tend to be effective in funneling additional traffic toward their members. Given that Qatar is such a tiny country, the airline needs passenger volume from other parts of the world. Around 80% of its traffic is only connecting through Doha.

Philosophically, it is also understandable why Etihad has decided to expand through acquisitions. With a fleet of 80 aircraft, Etihad is the smallest of the Big Three, and it is playing a game of catch-up. If the airline were only to grow organically, it would hardly be able to become as big as Qatar, let alone Emirates, but CEO James Hogan is convinced size and scale are needed.

The industry is divided about how Etihad is implementing that catch-up strategy, and the partners the airline has selected, including Air Berlin, Air Serbia (formerly JAT), Air Seychelles, Aer Lingus, Virgin Australia and, most recently, Jet Airways. Some of them—notably Air Berlin and Air Serbia—are incurring big losses. Air Berlin, in particular, would likely not still be flying without the various capital injections and rescue missions by its Abu Dhabi-based shareholder. Indian carrier Jet Airways, also in dire financial straits, promises at least to open up what could soon be one of the world's most lucrative air transport markets.

Hogan has made clear that he is not interested in buying a stake in Alitalia, but Etihad is understood to be in advanced talks with the Polish government about adding LOT Polish Airlines to its portfolio.

Etihad also has more than 40 bilateral agreements that do not include equity stakes. Most prominently, it code-shares with Air France, which has led to rumors about deeper cooperation plans.

Emirates continues to be uninterested in global multilateral alliances. Following its bad experience in investing in another airline (SriLankan Airlines), it is also no longer pursuing equity investments, although it was talking seriously with Air Berlin before Etihad stepped in.

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