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Flying High

Jun 1, 2009
2009 / June 2009

Gulf rivals Etihad Airways and Emirates are continuing their expansions — one measured, one still almost full-throttle — despite the economic turbulence swirling around the aviation industry. One important reason is that while global passenger growth has just slipped below double digits, passenger traffic is still escalating in the Middle East.

The International Air Transport Association reported that in March passenger traffic in the Middle East grew by almost 5 percent, a higher figure than February — and the only region of the world to experience such growth.

Etihad Airways CEO James Hogan said, “There’s a market here for world travel, and we’re seeing it today.”

Four other major players in the region — Qatar Airways, Kuwait Airways, Saudi Arabian Airlines and Lebanon’s Middle East Airlines Airliban — do not foresee any cutbacks and, in fact, are planning expansions.

Etihad Airways, the new kid in the region, is adding five routes this year from its Abu Dhabi (AUH) base. It will begin service to Chicago (ORD) in September and has already added Melbourne (MLB), Athens (ATH), Istanbul (IST) and Larnaca (LCA) as destinations. That brings to 55 the number of cities served by the 5-year-old airline. Last year Etihad carried 6 million passengers, an increase of 34 percent from 2007, with an increase in load factors as well.

Etihad, which means “unity” in Arabic, will take delivery of 11 new narrow- and wide-body aircraft this year, to bring its fleet to 52. Some of these new planes will boost capacity this summer by 20 percent.

Later this year Etihad will introduce its new first class for long-haul flights, featuring a redesigned cabin with larger seats and suites with more privacy. An expanded bathroom in first class will be big enough to serve as a changing room. Etihad has also opened new first- and business-class lounges in Abu Dhabi’s newly inaugurated Terminal 3, offering all-day dining and spas.

Dubai’s Emirates, just 90 miles away, continues its distinction as the world’s fastest-growing airline. It will add 18 new aircraft to a fleet that already numbers 132 wide bodies. The rapid buildup of these long-haul aircraft is a main reason travelers now look at the world’s aviation route map differently than a decade ago, seeing Dubai as a convenient connecting point.

Although construction and tourism in Dubai have seen a recent downturn, Emirates has no current plans to defer or cancel new plane orders — numbering about 150 — from Boeing or Airbus. Emirates remains the largest customer for the super jumbo A380. On June 1, however, the carrier will redeploy the two A380s used on the Dubai (DXB)–New York (JFK) route to Dubai–Bangkok (BAK) and Dubai–Toronto (YYZ). It has four in service and will receive another seven between now and March 2010, some of which will begin flying Dubai–Seoul (ICN) and Dubai–Singapore (SIN) later this year. Emirates also flies the A380 to London (LHR), Sydney (SYD) and Auckland (AKL).

Emirates plans to add new service to Africa — including Durban (DUR) and Luanda (LAD) — and to increase to daily the flights to Los Angeles (LAX) and San Francisco (SFO), boosting its total number of destinations above the 100 mark.

Over the next 10 months, Qatar Airways is spreading its wings on six new routes across India, Europe and Australia (its first foray Down Under), as well as increasing frequency to other destinations in its global network. The carrier is adding new Airbus and Boeing aircraft at an average of one a month — increasing its fleet to 110 by 2013 — and pumping $1 billion into expanding facilities at Doha International Airport (DOH), including extension of the exclusive Premium Terminal, to accommodate growth until the New Doha International Airport opens in two years.

For Kuwait Airways, 2009 appears to be a “stand pat” year, given falling oil revenue. Its aircraft fleet will remain stable, as will its destinations, including the heavily t raveled Kuwait (KWI)– London (LHR), Kuwait–New York (JFK) and Kuwait–Chicago (ORD) routes.

Saudi Arabian Airlines has embarked on an aggressive program to refurbish its extensive wide-body fleet to improve comfort and service. It is upgrading all three classes on its 21 Boeing 777 aircraft, including new leather seats and revamped sleeper service in first- and business-class cabins.

It will also replace the entertainment system aboard the 777, with new video screens in first class measuring 15.4 inches and in business class, 12.1 inches, and will add onboard cell phone capability in first class.

On the new aircraft front, Saudi Arabian Airlines has ordered 12 twin-engine wide-body A330s from Airbus. To power the new jumbos, the airline has placed an order with Rolls Royce Aero Engines worth $900 million. Both investments are expressions of confidence that air traffic in the region will continue to grow.

Saudi Arabian will continue to expand its service outside the region, increasing the number of destinations in India to eight. Using Boeing 757s, it will add flights from Riyadh (RUH) to Bangalore (BLR), Kolkata (CCU) and Lucknow (LKO).

For Lebanon’s Middle East Airlines, this spring has been one of optimism as well. According to Managing Director Mohammed al-Hout, Beirut’s international airport is ready to handle an expected 5 million passengers. MEA anticipates a period of sustained growth after rising again and again from adversity.

Established in 1945, MEA has dealt with the effects of a long civil war which effectively closed Beirut’s airport from 1975 to1990. The airline managed to stay in business by operating elsewhere, able to reestablish its routes after 1990 only to face problems a decade later with political instability and conflict.

Now back in business and, MEA says, better than ever, it is adding to its fleet, upgrading service and adding destinations. For the summer season, three new Airbus A330s will offer two classes, with 44 seats in business in a 2-2-2 configuration and 299 in economy. To its short-haul fleet of A320s and A321s, MEA is adding one A320, also with two classes, carrying 102 in economy and 24 in business.

MEA is increasing the number of daily flights to Dubai (DXB), Cairo (CAI), Amman (ADJ), Riyadh (RUH) and Jeddah (JED) — and plans to resume Beirut (BEY)–Baghdad (SDA) service for the first time in decades.

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