|Asian airlines feel pressure from Gulf rivals
|continued fast growth for middle eastern carriers could shift industry center
When Peter Harbison flew back to Sydney after attending the Asian Aerospace exhibition here last week, his plane could offer only one entertainment channel in the first hour of the seven-hour flight.
It would have been different had Harbison, managing director of the Centre for Asia Pacific Aviation, flown Middle East carrier Emirates, he said.
"On Emirates I can choose from about 200 CDs," he said, referring to the international airline of the United Arab Emirates (U.A.E.).
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 inflight service and beef up their fleets with newer and bigger aircraft that can fly longer distances, the center of gravity in the aviation industry could shift from Asia to the Middle East, analysts said.
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 well-known industry analyst Tom Ballantyne in a recently published commentary.
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 percent to 25 million in 2005, according to 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 percent.
While more passengers moved through Changi, Dubai had a much faster growth rate, Harbison said, adding that parity in customer traffic 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 said. As the Gulf carriers increase their market size, they are also able to dictate the pricing and behavior of other airlines, which would be forced to match the quality of inflight services and to maintain an equally up-to-date fleet of aircraft.
Harbison said passengers' expectations are now pushed higher, with Gulf carriers "in effect driving how the industry works."
Qatar Airways chief executive Akbar al-Baker 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 buildup. By 2015, it hopes to have a fleet of 110 aircraft.
The airline has ordered four double-decker A380 "superjumbo" jets from European manufacturer Airbus and 60 new generation A350s. It is in talks with both Airbus and U.S. rival Boeing for 20 more wide-body planes. By 2010 or 2011, Qatar Airways expects to be flying to between 100 and 115 destinations worldwide, up from 69 currently.
Ballantyne cited estimates by US investment bank JP Morgan that Gulf states' airlines will increase their available seats by 140 percent 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. 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 inflight services - an effort that has earned it several accolades.
Qatar Airways flies to Yangon, the main city in military-ruled Burma. Its Yangon flights are about 70 percent full with mostly European tourists and Burmese contract workers returning home from the Middle East.
Harbison said Asian carriers must meet the challenge by cutting costs and further liberalizing 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.
The Daily Star