Taking flight

21 November 2005
The Middle East aviation sector is undergoing a period of unprecedented change. International Air Transport Association (IATA) figures show that, in the first nine months of 2005, regional passenger traffic was up by 14 per cent on the same period in 2004. To some extent, global aviation trends have been reflecting developments in the world economy as well as the recovery of the tourism industry in many parts of the developing world. The next fastest growing region, Latin America, saw year-on-year traffic growth of about 12.4 per cent, while Africa enjoyed a healthy 11.2 per cent increase in passenger numbers. By comparison, none of the industrialised parts of the world saw traffic growth reaching double digits.

Middle East airlines are scrambling to keep pace, and there have been few better times to be a supplier. Toulouse-based manufacturer Airbus estimates that the Middle East & North Africa will require at least 1,000 aircraft worth $124,000 million by 2023 (see page 44). The company has enjoyed a good run of orders recently, crowned by the contract cemented with Qatar Airways at the Paris Air Show in June for the delivery of 60 A350 wide-bodied aircraft - a deal worth an estimated $10,600 million.

Airbus' success has been concentrating the minds of senior executives at US rival The Boeing Company. After a fallow period in which the company underwent extensive restructuring, and low oil prices reduced the number of orders coming out of the Gulf to a trickle, Boeing now intends to take Airbus on head-to-head and will be targeting financial intermediaries to future deals as well as potential clients themselves (see pages 40-44).

The rapid growth of long-haul Gulf carriers has not deterred heavyweight European competitors from pushing ahead with their own regional expansion plans. In mid-November, Virgin Airlines announced plans to fly to Dubai, while Lufthansa and British Airways both claim to have seen a surge in passenger numbers on Middle East routes (see pages 50-52). However, it will be difficult to keep the edge on regional rivals. Dubai-based Emirates has made a particular point of undercutting its competitors on long-haul flights - it can offer business seats for as little as half the going rate on the Europe-Australia route, for example. Qatar Airways and Etihad Airways have been going from strength to strength, as their order books testify. And a careful assessment of network connections and code-sharing agreements has also seen Gulf Air creep back into profitability and re-establish itself as a powerful regional brand (see pages 46-48).


But unless they continue to adapt to the fast growing market, even established players could quickly lose their edge. UK-based BMI was quick to jump into the gap left by British Airways when it pulled out of Saudi Arabia (see pages 48-50), and the former British flag-carrier may find it hard to regain a firm foothold in the Gulf, distracted as it is by the emerging markets of India and China.

There is also the threat from younger airlines. The current economic conditions in the Gulf are ideal for dramatic airline launches and rapid route expansion. Since arranging the financing for its first four aircraft in June, Kuwait-based Jazeera Airways has already begun regular flights to Dubai, Beirut, Amman, Damascus and Bahrain and plans to add Alexandria, Luxor and the Indian subcontinent to its list in the near future. The airline is one of several budget outfits, including Menajet and Air Arabia, which are applying the example of its European peers such as Easy Jet to the Middle East market.

Extending reach

In this atmosphere of feverish expansion, there are some concerns about overstretch. In this week's Cover Story (pages 4-6), John Irish reports on changes taking place in Emirates, which has been criticised for sacrificing quality to quantity. However, compan

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