Monday, March 04, 2013

Will the Persian Gulf become the world's air travel hub?

Welcome to the new "global travel crossroads" of the Persian Gulf:
It's 1 a.m. and the sprawling airport in this desert city is bustling. Enough languages fill the air to make a United Nations translator's head spin.

Thousands of fliers arrive every hour from China, Australia, India and nearly everywhere else on the planet. Few venture outside the terminal, which spans the length of 24 football fields. They come instead to catch connecting flights to somewhere else.

If it weren't for three ambitious and rapidly expanding government-owned airlines — Emirates Airline, Etihad Airways and Qatar Airways — they might have never come to the Middle East.
For generations, international fliers have stopped over in London, Paris and Amsterdam. Now, they increasingly switch planes in Dubai, Doha and Abu Dhabi, making this region the new crossroads of global travel. The switch is driven by both the airports and airlines, all backed by governments that see aviation as the way to make their countries bigger players in the global economy.

Passengers are won over by their fancy new planes and top-notch service. But the real key to the airlines' incredible growth is geography. Their hubs in Qatar and the United Arab Emirates are an eight-hour flight away from two-thirds of the world's population, including a growing middle class in India, China and Southeast Asia that is eager to travel.
I might add two more airlines to this list: flydubai, the low-cost carrier that operates out of Dubai's Terminal 2, and Air Arabia, another low-cost carrier which operates from the airport in neighboring Sharjah. While both of these airlines are regional in nature (flydubai's fleet is comprised entirely of Boeing 737 aircraft while Air Arabia uses only Airbus A320s, so neither airline offers long-haul flights), they are just two more examples of the tremendous aviation hub this corner of the Middle East has become. 

Like the article explains, it's all about geography. Not only is two-thirds of humanity within an eight-hour flight of these airports, but the region's warm, arid climate means that weather-related delays are exceedingly rare. These airlines have other advantages as well, and that doesn't always sit well with the international carriers with whom they are competing:
European airlines have suggested that the Gulf carriers benefit from access to discounted oil, a favorable tax climate and non-union labor, particularly low-wage immigrant workers from India and Pakistan.

But the biggest perk comes from Middle East governments who are investing heavily in attractive, efficient airports.

The Qatari government is building a $15.5 billion airport in Doha, designed to handle 24 million people each year, nearly six times the capacity of the existing facility. In Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates, the government is building a sprawling terminal twice the size of The Mall of America.

And construction was just completed in Dubai of a concourse designed exclusively for Emirates' fleet of Airbus A380s. The new building has entire floors dedicated to first and business class customers who board directly from lounges, never interacting with coach passengers.
There are also grumblings that these carriers might be directly subsidized by the oil-rich governments that own them. These airlines deny those charges, not that there's anything their American, European or East Asian competitors could do about it even if they were.

Regardless, these airlines are poised to upset the "old order" the international aviation realm. European carriers stand to lose the most as Emirates, Qatar and Etihad expand their services, but American carriers are nervous as well.
"I think they are a clear threat, much more so to our European and Asian colleagues, but nonetheless a threat to U.S. airlines as well," Jeff Smisek, CEO of United Continental Holdings Inc., said at an investor conference last March. "They have a very good product. And they have the total and absolute support of their governments."
Meanwhile, Smisek's own product - United Airlines - is anything but "very good." So he has reason to be concerned.

However, as many advantages that these airlines might have, it's still a bit too early to say that the future of international air travel belongs to Qatar and the UAE. For one thing, their geographical advantage still doesn't allow them to compete significantly in the lucrative trans-Atlantic and trans-Pacific markets; while I guess it is theoretically possible for a traveler from Chicago to Paris or from San Francisco to Toyko to change planes in Dubai, I'm guessing not many people are going to do that. Geography, furthermore, is as much a liability as it is in asset: the Middle East is volatile. A significant event in the region - war, terrorism or unrest - could seriously impact all of these airlines. There's also the fact that Emirates, Etihad and Qatar are expanding rapidly, putting in large jet orders and adding destinations at a dizzying pace. What happens if they grow too quickly and are forced to retrench? We've seen that happen all too often in the airline industry.

But what intrigues me the most about these airlines is how tightly they are clustered together. Dubai and Abu Dhabi are less than 100 miles apart, and Doha is closer to Abu Dhabi than Houston is to Dallas. Even Air Arabia's hub at Sharjah's airport is only about ten miles away from flydubai's hub at Dubai International. Will there be enough demand to comfortably support all of these closely-bunched airlines? What if Bahrain or Oman want to get in on the action and start expanding their own carriers? Will market conditions eventually force one or more of them out of business, leaving opulent airport terminals deserted and gleaming A380s and Dreamliners grounded, or will the sheikhs to whom these carriers ultimately belong pour money into money-losing carriers, to proud to let them fail?

For now, though, these Middle Eastern airports and airlines continue to grow and become more vital to the global aviation industry. Which is why, even though I've changed jobs and no longer travel to Dubai for business, I have a feeling that I'll be passing through there again one day.

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