Complex Made Simple

Gulf carriers in push to tap US market

Gulf airlines are increasingly looking to tap the lucrative US market as they continue to add more long-haul aircraft to their fleets.

Dubai-based Emirates Airline currently flies to six American cities, including Dallas and Seattle, both of which were added this year. And the carrier recently announced plans to add flights to Washington, DC in September.

Emirates also recently signed a codeshare deal with US-based JetBlue Airways that will put an Emirates code and flight number onto JetBlue flights from New York’s JFK airport to a dozen US destinations.

At this week’s Arabian Travel Market, the airline’s chairman told the Associated Press news agency that the carrier is planning further expansion across the US.

“The bilateral between the UAE and the US are very much open. We always see more new destinations to be opened. Where? I think any big cities within the US are a possibility,” Emirates’ chairman Sheik Ahmed bin Saeed Al Maktoum said.

When pressed to identify specific routes, Sheikh Ahmed said, “I think one day we’ll fly to Chicago, yes. Fly one day to Florida? Yes. Flying to other destinations? Yes, why not?”

Emirates also recently signed a codesharing agreement with US carrier JetBlue and the chairman did not rule out further partnerships in the US.

“We always, I think, remain open about it. We have to decide on a win-win situation when we work with somebody else. … They can cover a number of destinations in the US and maybe others,” he said.

Emirates is currently the world’s largest operator of both the Airbus A380 and Boeing 777, and is scheduled to receive a total of 49 more of these aircraft over the next two years.

“The USA has been the key focal point for Emirates and they probably have upwards of 50 or more cities that they would certainly like to fly directly to,” said Saj Ahmad, chief analyst with the UK-based StrategicAero Research. “Emirates is acutely aware that whatever services it launches from Dubai to the USA, those services will effectively be monopolies – and that in turn means huge revenue raising opportunities and a chance to lure and keep lucrative high yield traffic away from US airlines.”

Not to be outdone, Qatar Airways recently announced plans to double its route network to the US as it begins receiving Boeing 787 Dreamliners. The airline, which currently offers daily flights to Washington and Houston, plans to start flights to Atlanta, Chicago, Boston and Detroit within the next year.

The airline’s CEO Akbar Al Baker told Bloomberg that that the delayed delivery of the 787s was the ‘only the thing that stopped us from going earlier ‘.

Abu Dhabi-based Etihad Airways also recently announced that it will launch service to Washington, DC from March 31 2013. It will mark the airline’s third destination in the US, along with New York and Chicago.

But these carriers will have a lot of catching up to do if they hope to challenge Emirates for dominance in carrying passengers from the Middle East to the US, Ahmad said.

“Etihad and Qatar will need to either start ordering more airplanes soon or speed up delivery of what they have on order (namely A380s and 777-300ERs) if they want to compete effectively and prevent Emirates from cornering the US-GCC market,” he noted.

“And as more flights from all three Arab carriers to the US commence, US airlines will be pushed to respond,” he continued. “Whether they can or do so is questionable if not outright unfeasible given that there are few services from the US to date.”

He said US airlines are slowly waking up to the competitive threat posed by GCC airlines, as evidenced by United Airlines announcing this week that it will launch daily service between Washington and Doha, via Dubai.

But Ahmad said it almost seemed as if the US carrier was compelled to make the move. “After all, could it absorb the pressure of more astute carriers from the Persian Gulf forever? Probably not and its precisely why they are introducing daily flights to give customers more choice, aside from the big three Gulf airlines,” he said.

“United Airlines will have it all to do if it aims to make profitable its daily services to Doha via Dubai,” he continued. “And no doubt its move will be watched closely by the likes of Delta Airlines, American Airlines and US Airways – none of whom have a particularly big presence in the GCC in contrast to GCC carriers now expanding in the US.”