WHEN a video of a passenger being dragged off a United Airlines flight went viral last month, the American carrier’s Middle Eastern rivals were quick to mock its customer service. Qatar Airways updated its smartphone app to say it “doesn’t support drag and drop”. The ribbing was justified. Over a decade of expansion, Qatar Airways, along with Emirates of Dubai, the world’s largest airline by international passenger miles travelled, and Etihad Airways of Abu Dhabi, wowed customers with superior service and better-value fares.
Passengers joined them in droves, abandoning hub airports in America and Europe as well as the airlines that use them. Over the past decade the big three Gulf carriers and Turkish Airlines trebled their passenger numbers, to 155m in 2015 (see chart). They went a long way to dominating long-haul routes between Europe and Asia. Most international airlines rely on travellers going from or to their home countries, but customers of the four “super-connectors”, as they are known, mostly just change planes at the carriers’ hub airports en route to somewhere else.
A slowing of this spectacular growth was at some point inevitable. But it has been exacerbated by several things. First, the airlines have been deeply affected by the halving of the oil price since 2014, which has reduced their customers’ spending power and sharply cut demand for air travel from the Middle East itself. In particular, energy companies, responsible for 29% of GDP in the Gulf states, are slashing travel in business class, the most profitable cabin in airlines’ fleets.
Second, geography has turned sharply against them. When Sir Tim Clark, president of Emirates, helped Dubai’s government to set up the airline in 1985, he was quick to spot that a third of the world’s population lives within four hours’ flight of Dubai, and two-thirds within eight. “They were in the right place at the right time,” says Andrew Charlton of Aviation Advocacy, a consultancy. “But now they’ve been caught in the wrong place at the wrong time.” A series of terror attacks in the region and a coup in Turkey last July has prompted many passengers to shun airports in the Middle East and to go elsewhere to change planes. The latest figure (from March) for capacity utilisation for Middle Eastern airlines was just 73%, the lowest since 2006 and worse than at the height of the financial crisis in 2008-09.
The third, and latest, blow has been a set of travel restrictions introduced by the Trump administration. Since January Mr Trump has made efforts to ban the citizens of several Middle Eastern countries from entering America. Despite various legal challenges, those efforts have hit inbound traffic. In March America also banned electronic devices larger than a smartphone, chiefly laptops, from the cabins of planes flying between eight Middle Eastern countries and its own airports (Britain also introduced similar restrictions). The issuance of entry visas to America has been cut and security vetting increased.
After the first travel ban, demand fell by 35% on Emirates’ American routes. The banning of laptops has had an even worse effect on the Gulf carriers. Many passengers, particularly accountants, consultants and lawyers who are paid by the hour, are now choosing to fly via European hubs on other airlines, says Greeley Koch of the Association of Corporate Travel Executives, a trade group. The airlines have started lending their own devices to business-class passengers, but demand is still tumbling. In April Emirates cut flights to America by a fifth, a severe reversal after three years of rapid expansion there. For a network airline a drop in demand from one destination means falls on all the routes that connect with them.
Even Sir Tim, normally upbeat, admits that it has been a “testing” time. Emirates said on May 11th that airline profits fell by 82% in the past year. Results for Etihad, expected this month, are likely to make grimmer reading. In March Turkish revealed its first annual loss since its privatision in 2004. Qatar, meanwhile, is still growing, partly because the government is able to support it. Its alliance with IAG, owner of British Airways, in which Qatar has a 20% stake, also means that it is still seeing increases in passengers originating from London and then flying on to Asian countries.
Etihad is worst-placed. It has pushed out its CEO, James Hogan, and is in the midst of a strategy overhaul. Its move to invest in European airlines, including Italy’s national carrier, Alitalia, and Germany’s Air Berlin, has been disastrous. Last week, Alitalia, of which it owns 49%, declared bankruptcy. The week before Air Berlin, in which it has a 30% stake, announced a record loss of €667m ($739m) for 2016. Etihad failed to understand the differences between doing business in the Middle East and in Europe, where, for example, there are trade unions, says Gerald Wissel of Airborne Consulting in Hamburg.
Abu Dhabi’s inability to afford more subsidies, given a low oil price, means that radical options are on the table, including closing down Etihad and even seeking a merger with Emirates. But its rival is not keen on such a course, because using two hub airports would be hugely complex.
Before such drastic moves become necessary, it is possible that the commercial pressure may ease. Airline passengers are starting to realise that recent terror attacks are not actually occurring on board planes, says Mehmet Nane, CEO of Pegasus, a Turkish low-cost carrier. Many are returning to Middle Eastern airlines, he claims. Mr Trump’s travel restrictions may not be permanent. Alternatively, if his administration extends the laptop ban to include inbound flights from Europe, a step it is reportedly considering, the attractiveness of Gulf airlines relative to European carriers will improve.
Yet the breakneck growth of the recent past is unlikely to resume. Two new aircraft—the Boeing 787 and the Airbus A350—make it profitable to carry smaller numbers of passengers over long-haul routes. Secondary cities half a world away from each other can increasingly sustain direct connections. That eliminates the need to change planes in the Middle East. Big legacy carriers, in addition to long-haul, low-cost pioneers such as Norwegian and AirAsia X, are buying these planes in huge numbers. The fact that Airbus has 750 outstanding orders for its A350, compared with just 107 for the A380s that Emirates flies, shows where airlines think the future of aviation is heading. But before they celebrate their diminished force, they should thank the super-connectors for showing them how to raise their game.