Emirates, Etihad Airways and Qatar Airways have enjoyed unrivalled success in recent years as they have rapidly expanded their footprint to all corners of the globe.

Apart from benefiting from their geographic advantage and government-friendly policies in their home countries, these carriers have also established a reputation for offering an excellent product in all classes of their aircraft.  

Further cementing the region’s reputation as a home for luxury air travel was the recent launch by Etihad of a hotel-style suite on its new A380s. While viewed as over-the-top by some transport analysts, it is just the latest example of the willingness of Gulf airlines to push the boundaries in terms of innovation and luxury in the aviation sector. Six years ago, Emirates made a similarly bold move by introducing two on-board showers in the first-class cabins of its A380s.

But while these ultra-luxury offerings have helped garner attention and raise the profile of the carriers, competing for first-class travellers also carries economic risks. Dedicating too much cabin space to areas that cost passengers as much as $20,000 one-way, as is the case with Etihad’s suite, can quickly cut into an airline’s profits if customers’ spending habits change.

Such was the case in the aftermath of the economic downturn in 2008, as companies worldwide scrapped first-class travel for their employees.

For its part, Qatar Airways believes first-class travel will never return to profitability, and has shifted its focus to enhancing its business-class offerings.

But given the rivalry that exists between the big three carriers and the prestige factor that ranks highly among big-spending travellers in the Gulf, Qatar Airways might feel compelled to change its position if its competitors see revenues from their first-class cabins grow.