December 30, 2013
Credit: Doha International Airport
If the rise of the Persian Gulf carriers has been frightening so far for the rest of the industry, competitors should not even look at what is going to happen in 2014. The three big Middle Eastern airlines will have access to significantly improved infrastructure as they continue to grow their fleets.
Qatar Airways in particular is likely to be able to make another quantum leap in its rapid development: Hamad International Airport in Doha is expected to finally open after a series of long delays. There is enormous pressure for the facility to come online, as the home carrier plans to take delivery of its first Airbus A380 at the end of the first quarter. That type of aircraft can hardly be handled at the existing Doha International Airport. Qatar will not only get its first A380, it is also scheduled to receive its first A350-900 sometime in the fall, following certification of the aircraft at the end of August or early September.
But the Qatar/Doha situation also clearly demonstrates one of the main factors threatening further Persian Gulf carrier growth—infrastructure constraints, in spite of massive government support. Hamad International should have opened years ago, but a series of mishaps caused massive delays. One of the major issues was the late completion of lounges in the terminal. When everything looked like it would be finished, authorities launched an in-debth investigation into the fire protection systems. That issue had arisen in Qatar following a devastating kindergarten fire in early 2012. The airport audit led to a seemingly never-ending list of change requirements that still has not been fully dealt with.
Qatar Airways is continuing its expansion at the old Doha airport, which does not have air bridges, requiring passengers to be bussed across the field for arrivals, departures and connections. Traffic has long outgrown the facility's design capacity and it would certainly not be able to cope with the passengerloads associated with A380 operations.
Such problems will go away at the new airport. It will not only address the problem of how to accommodate large widebodies; passenger convenience will also be much improved, since most aircraft can be parked directly at air bridges.
2014 will also be a crucial year for Emirates, which has just committed to a large expansion of its A380 fleet at the recent Dubai Airshow. The airline increased its orderbook for the type from 90 to 140. But only half of the additional aircraft can be handled at Dubai International Airport, even taking into account all the current and possible future plans for expansion. The order therefore includes an implicit commitment for Emirates to move to a new airport sooner rather than later.
Operator Dubai Airports is currently working on the latest revision of its strategic plan. Al-Makhtoum International has been operating as a cargo airport for some time and the first passenger teminal was opened in October. Next year, when one of the two runways at Dubai International is resurfaced, more airlines will move to Al-Makhtoum, at least temporarily. But Emirates and Dubai Airports face a strategic dilemma. Given the amount of investment in the current airport and that it is ongoing, there is an economic incentive to stay at Dubai International for as long as possible.