Gulf airlines aiming high

When Peter Harbison flew back to Sydney after attending the Asian Aerospace exhibition in Singapore last week, his plane could offer only one entertainment channel in the first hour of the seven-hour flight.

    Gulf carriers will become major competitors in Asia-Pacific

    It would have been different had Harbison, managing director of the Centre for Asia Pacific Aviation, flown Middle East carrier Emirates.


    "On Emirates I can choose from about 200 CDs," he said referring to the international airline of the United Arab Emirates (UAE).


    Harbison's anecdote has more serious undertones - Asia-Pacific airlines face increasing competition from high-flying Gulf carriers including Emirates, Qatar Airways, Gulf Air and Abu Dhabi's Etihad Airways.


    As Gulf carriers raise the bar of in flight service and beef up their fleets with newer and bigger aircraft that can fly longer distances, the centre of gravity in the aviation industry could shift from Asia to the Middle East, analysts said.


    "Many major Asia-Pacific airlines may be reluctant to publicly address the potential threat posed by the spectacular growth and undoubted expansionist ambitions of airlines from the Gulf states, but it cannot be ignored"

    Tom Ballantyne, airlines industry analyst

    State-of-the-art airports are being constructed in Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Doha and Jeddah to support their respective carriers' lofty ambitions as well as their own plans to become aviation hubs.


    "Many major Asia-Pacific airlines may be reluctant to publicly address the potential threat posed by the spectacular growth and undoubted expansionist ambitions of airlines from the Gulf states, but it cannot be ignored," said industry analyst Tom Ballantyne in a recentTom ly published commentary.


    Major competitors


    Gulf carriers will become major competitors on Asia-Pacific airlines' key long- and medium-haul routes, said Ballantyne, chief correspondent of Orient Aviation magazine.


    With long-range aircraft, the oil-rich Gulf states and their respective airlines are increasing their share of the growing intercontinental traffic between Asia and Europe, and the United States.


    For example, Dubai's airport handled only five million passengers in 1991 but the numbers soared by 400% to 25 million in 2005, said Harbison.


    In the same period, passenger traffic at Singapore's Changi Airport - a Southeast Asian hub - climbed from 16 million passengers to 32 million, or 100%.


    While more passengers passed through Changi, Dubai had a much faster growth rate, Harbison said, adding that parity was still "some years off."


    The rise of Gulf carriers could "shift the balance of power very much to the Middle East for long-haul connections," Harbison pointed out.


    Gulf influence


    Qatar Airways' Al-Baker (L) says
    competition should be welcomed

    As the Gulf carriers increase their market size, they are also able to dictate pricing and behaviour of other airlines, which would be forced to match the quality of in flight services and aircraft fleet.


    Harbison said passengers' expectations were now pushed higher, with Gulf carriers "in effect driving how the industry works."


    Akbar Al-Baker, Qatar Airways chief executive, said competition should be welcomed because it will serve both airlines and passengers well.


    "If we don't have competition, we will be complacent, because we know that business is going to come our way," Al-Baker told the Foreign Correspondents Association here last week.


    Like its competitors in the Gulf, Qatar Airways has embarked on an aggressive build up. By 2015, it hopes to have a fleet of 110 aircraft.


    The airline has ordered four double-decker A380 "super jumbo" jets from European manufacturer Airbus and 60 new generation A350s. It is in talks with both Airbus and US rival Boeing for 20 more wide-body planes.


    Cost cutting


    Many Gulf countries are building
    state-of-the-art airports

    By 2010 or 2011, Qatar Airways expects to be flying to between 100 and 115 destinations worldwide from 69 currently.


    Ballantyne cited estimates by US investment bank JP Morgan that Gulf states' airlines will increase their available seats by 140% in the next six years.


    Their combined orders for new aircraft are nearing 200, including 49 of the A380, the world's biggest passenger airliner.


    Al-Baker said among the reasons for Qatar Airways' rise is that it dares to fly to cities shunned by its rivals, and has put a premium on improving in flight services - an effort that has earned it several accolades.


    Qatar Airways flies to Yangon, the main city in military-ruled Myanmar. Its Yangon flights are about 70% full with mostly European tourists and Myanmar contract workers returning home from the Middle East.


    Harbison said Asian carriers must meet the challenge by cutting costs and further liberalising their markets.


    "That means going beyond what they have already done... to have more effective partnerships, because these carriers in the Middle East are going to get so big that individual airlines in Asia would not be able to compete," he said.



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