Sheikh Ahmed bin Saeed al-Maktoum, chairman of Emirates, said the airline’s 2006/07 budget is based on $65 a barrel. But it still expects to record a 13 per cent earnings rise. To achieve this, Emirates needs to report turnover growth of at least 20 per cent and an increase in the number of passengers to about 18 million from 14.5 million last year. This is ambitious but not unreasonable.
Qatar Airways and Etihad Airways plan similar growth. As Emirates’ figures show, Gulf airlines have an advantage over established ones that allow them to raise profits despite higher costs and increasing competition. They have placed more orders for advanced passenger airliners than anyone else. And they are launching new routes at an accelerating rate.
Last month, Qatar Airways started its first Hong Kong flight and a third to Heathrow. Etihad is receiving a new aircraft every month. But in terms of scale, no-one is doing more than Emirates. At the end of December, it applied for 42 additional weekly flights to Australia involving more than 600,000 extra seats a year each way. Canberra has approved seven. Emirates plans to press its case later this year.
In a pattern that is being repeated by other Gulf carriers, Emirates’ first target was the Dubai-London route. It now offers 13 daily flights and seems content to grow incrementally. Virgin’s four weekly flights are little more than a drop in its ocean. The second focus is India, where Emirates has 71 weekly flights, a figure that will grow to match the increase in Indian workers in the Gulf. The third focus is Australia, where it leads in direct Gulf flights.
The new frontier will be the Atlantic. Emirates operates a twice-daily New York service. A third flight will be launched this year. Other North American destinations are on its agenda, including San Francisco. South America is after that. By the end of the decade, Emirates will be operating non-stop flights to destinations in two-thirds of the globe.
The long-term vision is startling. Emirates’ vice-chairman Maurice Flanagan told MEED last November that the airline could have 170 million passengers in 2025. Other Gulf airlines are being inspired. Within a generation, three of them will be among the world’s biggest airlines.
The GCC by then could have the sixth largest economy on earth and a population of 90 million. The region’s airports will have capacity to handle up to 400 million passengers a year. In those circumstances, airline dreams could become facts.
So can anything stop the irresistible rise of Gulf aviation? Flanagan told me last week that he could see no insuperable impediments. This may be why Emirates has published more detail its annual results than ever before. The aim is finally to rebut allegations about subsidies that have been used against Emirates’ applications for additional flights in some major centres. I believe its case is now largely made.
Gulf airlines believe economics, technology and world aviation regulations are on their side. Their priority is to get their new aircraft operating as soon as possible, which is why there is anxiety about the Airbus A380 delivery schedule. Even a delay of a few months will make a big difference to revenue trends.
The conclusion is that in aviation, as in oil, gas and plastics, the Gulf is turning its potential into commanding positions in world markets. And what has happened is a fraction of what’s coming.
Record oil prices have obliged me to revise upwards my five-year GCC balance of payments surplus to more than $700,000 m