New world order

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Making friends The three big Gulf carriers are seeking alliances with other airlines, but in very different ways.

Making friends The three big Gulf carriers are seeking alliances with other airlines, but in very different ways.

Since Dubai set up Emirates Airline in 1985, the Gulf region has gone from a small regional aviation player to one of the mammoths of the industry. The three big carriers – Emirates, Abu Dhabi’s Etihad Airways and Qatar Airways – have dominated aircraft order books, airshow news headlines and helped the Middle East become one of the few regions in the world to regularly report profits amidst the doom and gloom of the global recession.

Although the big three had always prided themselves on going it alone and avoiding alliances or partnerships, there was a seismic shift last year when it was announced Emirates had struck a partnership with Aussie carrier Qantas, Etihad was to codeshare with arch rival Air France/KLM and Qatar Airways was to join the oneworld airline alliance.

At this year’s Arabian Travel Market (ATM) this feeling of alliance building and partner proposals became even more pronounced with new suitors being sounded out and initial flirtations being made. Maybe it is the mix of airport opening delays, aircraft groundings or a basic need to balance the books that are the motivators, but the big executives seem to be increasingly in the mood to talk to those once perceived as direct rivals.

First out of the stalls is Qatar Airways CEO Akbar Al Baker who, as always, is very direct in his belief that an alliance with Dubai-based Emirates Airline would be a good thing for him and a good thing for the region.

“We are always open [to an alliance]… I think now the closeness between Emirates and Qatar Airways will really make a very strong airline,” he says. Despite the Doha-based airline announcing it is set to be fully integrated into the oneworld alliance from September, Al Baker points to Emirates’ recent alliance with Australian rival Qantas as a clear example the Dubai airline was open to integration.

“You never know: Did you ever expect only one year ago that Emirates and Qantas would get together? Things in aviation can move fast. Integration of Emirates and Qatar Airways will benefit this region and will make the two airlines even stronger than they are today.”

Al Baker first suggested such an alliance during a speech to the Arab Air Carrier Association’s AGM in Algeria in late 2012, but the idea was soon shot down by Tim Clark, president of the Dubai-based carrier.

“You put the two together and you would face the most formidable international airline group that has ever been formed,” Clark told UK-based Aviation Week. “That’s why it will never happen.”

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