SEATTLE — Three decades ago, Doha in Qatar, and Dubai and Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates were little known outside the Persian Gulf.
Today, they’re among the world’s fastest-growing and wealthiest cities. And for international air travelers, they represent a new crossroads of the aviation world. They’re home to hubs of three fast-growing airlines — Qatar Airways, Emirates and Etihad Airways — that are going toe to toe with the world’s more-established giants.
They’ve turned their focus on the United States after expanding at breakneck speed in Asia, Africa and Europe. They’re increasingly flying to more U.S. cities with greater frequency.
Nowhere is the focus more evident than here, where Qatar Airways takes commercial aviation’s center stage today with a “delivery celebration” to accept a new Boeing 787 Dreamliner.
“It’s very exciting for us, because it (the Dreamliner) will be the first one to operate in the Gulf,” says Akbar Al Baker, CEO of Qatar Airways, which bills itself as the “world’s five-star airline.”
This Dreamliner is just the first that Qatar Airways is getting. It has 30 on order and options to buy 30 more Dreamliners, which are made largely from lightweight carbon composites and are known for their fuel efficiency and passenger-friendly interiors.
Qatar Airways’ commitment to buying the cutting-edge aircraft is indicative of how the Gulf airlines have positioned themselves atop global customer-satisfaction rankings by flying new planes and offering luxurious international service to an increasing number of destinations.
“The Gulf carriers have basically redefined the industry,” says Brendan Sobie, chief analyst for the Centre for Asia Pacific Aviation, an industry analysis and consulting firm.
They’ve done it, Sobie says, through pursuing policies of rapid growth by leveraging their locations, which lets them connect passengers to cities across continents with a single stop in their Gulf hubs.
Now, he says, “they’re filling out their networks” by adding more destinations in the Americas, where the U.S. market is especially attractive because of its size and limited direct connections to many overseas destinations.
Emirates — which serves the most U.S. destinations of the three — last month began non-stop service to its Dubai hub from Washington Dulles. Dallas/Fort Worth and Seattle service began earlier this year.
Etihad plans to add its third U.S. route, to Washington Dulles, in March.
Qatar Airways will have four U.S. destinations when it adds Chicago O’Hare service in April. More are coming.
“After Chicago, we are going to start operating three more destinations,” Al Baker told USA TODAY. “This will be Atlanta, Detroit and Boston.”
He didn’t pinpoint dates, but said, “It will be soon, because we have plans to add 15 to 16 (worldwide) destinations in our network next year.”
A little disgruntlement
The Gulf airlines’ fast growth hasn’t come without ruffling some feathers of more established carriers.
Among complaints routinely leveled against the three state-owned carriers is that they unfairly benefit from public subsidies, cheap labor and preferential fuel prices not available to U.S. and European carriers. All three deny the claims and insist they compete on a level playing field.
But it’s led to repeated dust-ups between the Gulf carriers and their European and North American rivals.
Among the most high-profile is an ongoing dispute between Emirates and Canada, which Emirates accuses of restricting access to Canadian airports to protect Air Canada.
The dispute reached a crescendo in 2010 when the UAE evicted Canadian forces from a clandestine military base on its soil after the two nations couldn’t reach a deal on landing rights.
In that dispute, Canada refused to allow UAE carriers additional flights into Canada, saying that the number of passengers flying between the nations didn’t justify awarding the carriers additional access.
The UAE government and its airlines viewed the move as an effort by the Canadian government to protect Air Canada and its flying partner, Lufthansa, from competition. Air Canada and Lufthansa connect Air Canada passengers to Asia via its hubs in Frankfurt and Munich.
Arguments with the U.S. aren’t as vitriolic, and U.S. airlines are diplomatic in the words they choose to describe their concerns.
Airlines for America, a trade group that represents big U.S. carriers, says it’s important for U.S. airlines to compete internationally on a fair and level playing field.
“Other countries, particularly those in the Middle East and Asia, recognize their airlines are a strategic asset, and their policies reflect that,” says the group’s spokeswoman Jean Medina.
Medina says U.S. airlines are focusing on strengthening their situation inside the U.S. by urging reduced taxes and regulations on carriers as the best way to ultimately compete against Gulf and other state-owned foreign carriers.
Increasingly, resentment and opposition to the Gulf carriers is softening.
It’s a result, Sobie says, of what he calls “the next phase” in the evolution of the Gulf carriers. The three airlines are forging strategic ties with airlines in the United States, Europe and elsewhere in the way of alliances.
The alliances — Oneworld, Star Alliance and SkyTeam — allow airlines globally to market to and ticket passengers across several carriers to get to far-flung destinations as if they’re a single carrier.
Qatar Airways last month became the first of the Gulf carriers to be promised full-fledged membership in one of the big three. It will join Oneworld, which is anchored by American Airlines and British Airways, in 2013 or 2014.
“We are very proud to have been selected by Oneworld,” Qatar’s Al Baker says. Membership will result in Qatar being able to sell seats on connecting flights and have reciprocal frequent-flier deals with American, British Airways, Australia’s Qantas and about a dozen other airlines.
Other Gulf airlines are striking deals, too. Emirates last month persuaded Qantas to loosen its longstanding ties with British Airways and cooperate with Emirates in connecting passengers between Europe and Australia.
In the U.S., Emirates has tried to enhance its standing in the market by forging frequent-flier partnerships with Alaska Airlines and JetBlue. Etihad has a similar pact with American.
There’s talk in aviation circles that more are to come, which Sobie says isn’t surprising.
“There is a lot of opportunity for the U.S. airlines to partner with the Gulf carriers — more so than for the European carriers,” Sobie says.
Indicative of the prestige that Gulf carriers enjoy is Qatar Airways’ ranking as the world’s best airline two years running by Skytrax, a Britain-based travel consultancy that runs what it calls the “world’s largest review site.”
Qatar is among only six airlines in the world to currently maintain a perfect 5-star rating in the organization’s rating scale.
The other two Gulf carriers also are renowned for their services.
Emirates, which had two in-flight showers installed in the first-class suites of its Airbus A380s, is regarded as one of the airline’s most luxurious carriers and one with the best in-flight entertainment systems.
Etihad has its own badges of honor. It was ranked the “World’s Leading Airline” in the 2011 World Travel Awards and “World’s Best First Class” in the most recent Skytrax ratings.
The high-end service is winning customers in the U.S.
Herkea Jea, a small-business owner from Fremont, Calif., is one.
Jea flies more than 400,000 miles a year and once or twice a month to destinations around the globe. He’s flown all three carriers and most frequently flies Emirates out of San Francisco.
Why? He rattles off a list of advantages for the Gulf carriers, including new aircraft, high-quality food and friendly staff.
“Friendly cabin crews — this one makes a big difference,” he says in comparing flying Gulf carriers with their U.S. and European counterparts.
William Evans, an Atlanta-based director for a major aviation industry company, is another convert.
He’s a high-level elite customer with both Delta and United, but says, “I began to shift my business especially to Emirates. The U.S. carriers are usually the most expensive, and the service is lacking.”
Emirates offers spacious seating in business-class configuration on its overseas routes, which appeals to him, he says.
That’s the type of advantage that Gulf carriers are hoping to market to win fliers and expand their presence in the U.S.
“The American public in general likes to stick to their own airlines because they have an experience (with them),” says Qatar’s Al Baker “They are skeptical about new entrants into the market. But, I assure you, once they fly with us, then they quickly change … and they will always fly Qatar Airways.”
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