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Gulf airlines look to fight back after turbulence hits profits

  • After years of incredible growth, a combination of factors are hurting the big Middle East airlines
  • The trio all claim they can overcome political disruption, oil price pressure, and U.S. regulation

The rise of the Middle Eastern carriers has been a big aviation story of recent years, with astonishing rates of growth in passenger numbers.

Qatar Airways and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) pair of Emirates and Etihad have invested heavily in aircraft and premium flying options as they look to cash in on the region's position as a natural global transit hub.

But in recent months, each of the big Gulf airlines have faced lower travel demand thanks to the low oil price and flat economic activity. Political instability in the region has also disrupted business as well as tougher flight regulations coming from the Donald Trump administration in the United States.

Qatar Airways

Musicians perform next to the 25th unit of Boeing 787 Dreamliner received by Qatar Airways and dislayed at the Dubai Airshow on November 9, 2015 in the Gulf Emirate.
Marwan Naamani | AFP | Getty Images
Musicians perform next to the 25th unit of Boeing 787 Dreamliner received by Qatar Airways and dislayed at the Dubai Airshow on November 9, 2015 in the Gulf Emirate.

Perhaps the Middle Eastern airline with the biggest set of problems on its current plate is Qatar Airways. The emirate is locked in a dispute with neighboring countries who have curtailed airspace rights over the nation.

The CEO Akbar Al Baker said after the blockade took effect in June, the airline lost 11 percent of its network capacity and 20 percent of revenue stream. He has pleaded with President Donald Trump to do more to end the blockade imposed by Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Egypt and the UAE.

An attempt to buy as much as a 10 percent slice of the U.S. carrier American Airlines failed in August and backfired when the U.S. airline canceled its code-sharing agreement with Qatar Airways.

Qatar Airways reported a net profit of $540 million for the 2016-17 financial year, but analysts forecast the calendar year 2017 will see a fall in seats booked out of Doha.

The airline says it is fighting back and will soon cover the loss of network by accelerating expansion plans to other destinations.

Qatar Airways already owns 20 percent of International Consolidated Airlines Group, the parent of British Airways, as well as 10 percent of South America's LATAM Airlines Group.

In late September Qatar Airways completed the purchase of a 49 percent stake in Italy's Meridiana and in November it agreed to buy a near 10 percent stake in the Hong Kong airline Cathay Pacific for $661 million.

Emirates

Factory-fresh planes being delivered to customers are often filled with goods and supplies destined for disaster-hit regions.
Source: Airbus Foundation
Factory-fresh planes being delivered to customers are often filled with goods and supplies destined for disaster-hit regions.

In 2006, Emirates carried around 17 million passengers. According to IATA Business intelligence Services that number had risen just 10 years later to hit more than 55 million passengers.

But the story of dream growth screeched to an abrupt halt last November when Emirates reported that half-year profits had fallen by 64 percent to $364 million. The full-year figures in May 2017 saw an 82.5 percent plunge, its first decline in annual profit for five years.

The airline blamed the strength of the dollar, terror attacks in Europe as well as restrictions on travel to the United States from the Middle East.

Dubai was one of 10 airports in Muslim-majority countries affected by a ban on laptops and other electronics in carry-on luggage aboard flights to the U.S.

After the ban, Emirates cut five of its 12 U.S. destinations from its schedule. Emirates Airline President Tim Clark said in September that the carrier was recovering and would restore capacity on the routes within 9 months.

Emirates is the world's biggest customer of the A380, having ordered 142 of the planes. It took delivery of its 100th A380 in November this year. The airline's chairman, Sheikh Ahmed bin Saeed Al-Maktoum, has said he hopes to see a further order announced at the Dubai Airshow.

Etihad

An Etihad Airlines plane from Abu Dhabi prepares to land at Los Angeles International Airport.
Mark Ralston | AFP | Getty Images
An Etihad Airlines plane from Abu Dhabi prepares to land at Los Angeles International Airport.

After several years of profit, Etihad Airways bucked the trend in July when it posted a group loss of $1.87 billion for 2016. The figure was heavily influenced by one-off impairments that included $1 billion on aircraft and $808 million on exposures to the ailing carriers Alitalia and Air Berlin.

The impairments were seen as an indictment of the state-owned airline's strategy of expansion by investment.

James Hogan, who was considered the leading force behind Etihad's investment policy, has now left the airline and from January 2018 the new group chief will be Tony Douglas. Douglas has worked for Abu Dhabi in the past in the role of CEO of both the state airports and ports companies.

Etihad has stopped all funding to Alitalia and the soon to be dismantled, Air Berlin. It will fall to Douglas to decide what is to be done with ongoing stakes in Air Serbia, Virgin Australian and Indian carrier, Jet Airways.

In October, the president of rival UAE airline Tim Clark told Reuters he was open to working more closely with Etihad on areas such as procurement.

He fell short of merger talk however, suggesting that was unlikely to be on the agenda any time soon. Emirates is owned by the Dubai government while Etihad is owned by the Abu Dhabi government.