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Sat 2 Jul 2011 09:43 AM

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Emirates set to slash fares to fill A380s

Airline's president says company will combat profit squeeze from higher fuel costs by cutting prices

Emirates set to slash fares to fill A380s
An Emirates A380

Emirates, the biggest international airline, said it will combat a profit squeeze from higher fuel costs by slashing fares to fill its 500-seat Airbus A380s, heightening competition for Air France-KLM and British Airways.

Emirates will resist the urge to cut routes and flights as oil prices threaten the profitability of some destinations and instead aims to stir up demand with cheaper tickets, Tim Clark, the Dubai-based carrier’s president, said in an interview.

“I can understand how irritated some airlines become, because 43 percent of our daily costs are for fuel, and it’s out of our control,” Clark said.

“But the last thing you should contemplate is capacity reduction. It’s easy to do, but it has sounded the death knell for so many carriers.”

Industry practice has generally been to halt growth when times are hard and costs high, focusing on the most profitable routes that can sustain higher fares.

That strategy is risky because it hurts sales and destroys confidence among passengers, airports, holiday companies and businesses in destination cities, so that traffic often never returns, Clark said on June 20.

Qatar Airways CEO Akbar al Baker said that the second-biggest Middle-Eastern carrier may operate 190 planes by 2020, 60 more than envisaged, as it follows Emirates in building a long-haul transfer hub to rival London, Paris and Frankfurt.

Abu Dhabi’s Etihad Airways, the regional No. 3, is also committed to adding new jets and routes, CEO James Hogan said in an interview in London.

Clark cited US-based Trans World Airlines and Pan American World Airways as major carriers that have gone bust during his career after fatally paring back their networks.

Emirates will stick with a rapid-growth model based on building Dubai into a high-volume, inter-continental travel hub using a wide-body fleet featuring 90 A380 superjumbos with 45,000 seats, Clark said.

While cutting fares to sell tickets on the 517-berth planes will push up the occupancy level needed to break even, the impact of government spending cuts in many overseas markets means that strategy is more likely to succeed than one based on curbing capacity and raising fares, he said.

Emirates had an 80 percent occupancy level in the year to March 31, when it boosted passengers 14 percent to 31.4 million and lifted net income 43 percent to AED5.93 billion ($1.6 billion) on sales that rose 26 percent to AED57.4 billion.

“There is a wave of austerity in Europe from France and the UK to Ireland and Greece, and people are concerned about that,” Clark said.

“But what has changed in the last 20 years is that whereas travel used to be way down the list of priorities, people now rate it as the No. 1 thing they want to do. So we need to stimulate demand and get back to pricing levels that are affordable for the customers while still giving us a margin.”

Deutsche Lufthansa and British Airways have already slashed costs after oil surged to more than $145 a barrel in 2008, sending jet fuel to a record $4.36 a gallon, and have little room left for maneuver, Clark said.

Airlines will probably achieve a collective profit of $4 billion this year, 54 percent less than previously forecast, the International Air Transport Association said June 6, citing the impact of higher oil prices, Arab unrest and the Japanese earthquake and tsunami.

“When oil reached $145 that caused a huge reworking of the way things were done, and airlines got themselves back on an even keel and began making money again, only to get another kick in the solar plexus when it went back to $120,” Clark said.

“Now everyone says let’s contract, ground planes and lay off crew. But this time the cupboard is bare.”

Brent crude reached $127 a barrel on April 11 and was priced at about $112 yesterday. Clark said oil needs to sell for between $60 to $80 a barrel for airlines to operate in comfort.

Emirates is also conscious of the impact that reining in jet orders would have on manufacturers, Clark said, with contract cancellations or modifications likely to prompt an “horrendous domino effect” among smaller carriers that could compromise Airbus, Boeing and their supplier base.

“You start to bring down the global duopoly when it’s in our interests to maintain it,” he said. “In a leaner industry your costs go up because you don’t have the plethora of choice.”

Clark said he’s in any case confident the plane orders are necessary as Dubai’s location between Asia and Australasia and Europe, North America and Latin America allows Emirates to tap demand spurred by globalization and growth in emerging markets.

Founded in 1985, the carrier developed an inter-continental network from 1996, when long-range Boeing 777s and Airbus A340s allowed it to reach new cities and meet the global aspirations of Dubai’s rulers, Clark said. The model has proved scale-able as the world economy enters “a new paradigm,” he said.

“We’re in the right place at the right time,” the executive said. “We would have done it anyway but on a smaller scale. Our business model was always structured around maximizing the benefits of our location.”

Etihad, which ranks third in the Middle East and has added seven more planes this year, will announce three more routes next week that will commence in the next 12 months, Hogan said in an interview in London on June 22.

“We’ve no intention of cutting back our growth,” he said. “But that doesn’t stop us from redeploying assets if we think we can get a better return on a certain route.”

At Qatar Airways, Al Baker said in an interview at the Paris show that he’s not only sticking with a plan to grow the fleet to between 120 and 130 airplanes, but aims to extend it.

“The way I see the opportunities today we’ll end up anywhere in the region of 175 to 190 aircraft by 2020,” he said on June 20.

Doha-based Qatar had a 178-plane order backlog worth $35 billion at list prices even before a show where it added six more Boeing 777s and said it’s mulling a contract for Airbus’s re-engined A320neo single-aisle model.

“I’m very ambitious,” Al Baker said. “I want to make sure that Qatar will be a major hub between East and West. I am never intimidated by anybody’s size. I like it as a matter of fact. It keeps our eyes on the ball.”

Emirates didn’t buy planes in Paris but may announce orders at the Dubai Air Show in November, chairman Sheikh Ahmed bin Saeed al-Maktoum said in May. The carrier currently has about 150 Airbus and Boeing jets, including 15 A380s, with a 200- strong order book worth in excess of $68 billion before options.

Etihad has less expansive growth plans and Hogan has been open to cooperation with other companies, operating more than 30 code-shares that allow it to attach its code to services flown by other carriers.

“We’re still going to be a mid-sized airline,” he said. “My brief is to create an airline that is the right size and shape. And we’ve got two competitors on our doorstep, were mindful of that, so we see how we can compete working with other airlines.”

Hogan, linked earlier this year with a bid for Richard Branson’s Virgin Atlantic Airways, which is seeking a partner, said that Etihad is open to opportunities, though “there’s nothing compelling on the table today.”

Al Baker said he sees no need for Qatar Air to join an alliance for the next five years at least, and that remaining independent gives him “a freehand to expand and to design the product the way I want.” The CEO said he’s receptive to a stock- exchange listing, if only because a share sale would curtail a debate over how much the airline benefits from state ownership.

“In a way it is good for us to do an IPO so that the people who keep making noise about us being government subsidised, government supported, will have to shut their mouth and not talk about it again,” al Baker said.

Clark at Emirates said he’s “not an alliance person” and that the pursuit of takeovers by airlines usually distracts management. Becoming a traded stock with shareholders and independent directors would also be “hell on earth,” he said.

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rsal 8 years ago

I think, it is the right decision to cut the price aiming to fill your planes otherwise you will end with big disaster.
Personally, I try hardly to make use of your plan. But your prices are quite high if you compare them with KLM or BA.
Mr. Emirate / Mr. Qatar air, you can own the world, you have the money but you cannot force others to use your plan unless there is quite reasonable comparison.

David 8 years ago

Let us see if this happens. I was able to fly Premium Economy to London on Virgin Atlantic cheaper than flying Emirates Economy last week. Emirates does need to lift their game.

Wisdom 8 years ago

Yes, Emirates rates these days are crazy high! I used to flight Emirates regularly, but not after the price hike!

Ali 8 years ago

Prices has to come down...I know lots of friends with kids that can not afford EK and they opt to use other airlines or even drive to AUH and get a better deal. I urge EK to have a special family fair for this summer or risk to loose lots of intimate customers.

Mohammad 8 years ago

I think, it does not make sence for EK to sell Business class for AED 14ooo. While other airlines on the same route they sell for less than 8000.
Beleive me it will add if you are a family of 4 or more.

Jon 8 years ago

I doubt they will be able to halve their fares, as often when I looked as EK and other carriers on long haul from Dubai, they were often double, and then a premium to fly the A380. The service on board doesn't warrant the extra cost of flying EK.

Clevatreva 8 years ago

Emirates really need to re-think their strategy on premium pricing. They have done very well to date using this kind of approach, but the service just isn’t worth the additional costs. Two weeks ago EK business class to LHR was over Dhs. 20K, BA were charging Dhs. 14k. You don’t have to guess which one I chose.

They are really pricing themselves out the market

Paigon 8 years ago

I've just booked Dubai to Manchester with Qatar Airways.
Qatar Airways was 1,500aed cheaper. This is the 3rd flight this year I've booked with Qatar air, because the difference between Qatar and Emirates in price is ridiculous - for the same quality service.

Ronald Ramos 8 years ago

I agree that Emirates has no choice to make promos because airlines need to fill their planes to make their investments a success. I would prefer a long-range airplanes like the Boeing 787, Airbus 350s and Boeing 777s, because it is not a risk to get a huge number of midsized airplanes, because when the demands for air travel is low the airlines do not suffer loses, while when you have Airbus 380s you lose money because the capacity is not maximised because of a 600 seater passenger airplane.

Disillusioned former EK passenger 8 years ago

EK management is flying too close to the sun. I travelled Emirates for 17 years - but no more - now its BA. Reasons: 1) underhand slashing of the Skywards rewards (halved the benefit, removed the perks, while increasing fares), 2) penalising ex Dubai passengers by making our fares much more expensive (in some cases nearly double) than if you start in Europe or Asia. So total disregard for their home base and long term loyal customers. And 3)simple cost. Flew to New York last month with BA and saved - wait for it - NINETEEN THOUSAND dirhams on two tickets. Going to London next week - with BA. Cheaper and already accrued loads of miles and upgrade to next tier level. 4)poor customer service. Am a Gold skywards member and was on hold for 13.5 minutes before anyone answered.