UAE airlines-1599799248338
With some changes to their aircraft mix and rate revision, UAE airlines can work on new ways to firm up their hub status on long-haul services. Image Credit: Ador T. Bustamante/Gulf News

COVID-19 has sent shockwaves through the aviation industry. Cash-strapped airlines have either gone bust, gone into administration, or in search for a new lifeline in the form of a government bailout to increase liquidity and survive.

People are more reluctant to travel, seeking to reduce their exposure to the virus along with balancing the risk of being restricted by quarantine measures. Therefore, it’s unsurprising that IATA (International Air Transport Association) says the Middle East is forecast to see a 56 per cent drop in the number of passengers this year, a trend likely to lead to air travel’s overall decline over the coming years.

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It’s with this bleak picture that airlines must quickly respond to the changing characteristics of the marketplace to establish a competitive advantage once international air travel makes a meaningful rebound. I’ve analysed the commercial performance and economics of the top Middle East carriers.

Through a study, I examined the emergence of Ultra Long-Haul (ULH) flights and concluded they have increasing potential to thrive in a post-pandemic era.

A question of convenience

As people, we love convenience. Whether it’s ordering groceries from an app, making purchases online, or taking the fastest route home, it’s the speed and efficiency in getting what we want, when we want it that appeals to us most.

ULH flights, lasting more than 14 hours nonstop between two major global cities, are more efficient, and could offer airlines a competitive advantage. In its first year of service, Qantas’ nonstop Perth-London route, covering a distance of 14,000 kilometres, flew 94 per cent full and carried 155,000 passengers, emphasising the popularity of this groundbreaking route.

But it’s not just shaving a few hours off the travel time where this model has the advantage, it’s also the notion of safety, reducing the risk of exposure to the virus for passengers during layovers.

Ready response

Since COVID-19 became a familiar threat to us worldwide, governments, businesses and individuals have taken the necessary precautions to reduce transmission. The UAE’s response has been exemplary, settling nerves at a time when people are more health-conscious than ever before.

But ‘super-connector’ hubs, including Dubai and Abu Dhabi, could lose out in future as health-conscious passengers and elderly people could choose to pay the premium for convenience, bypassing these hub airports altogether. Where does this leave the Middle East’s top carriers?

Emirates maintains its dominance in long-haul travel based on a model rooted in connecting Dubai with the world, but also bridging the gap between East and West, with its fleet of Airbus A380s and Boeing 777s. The UAE and Saudi Arabia have landed major events of strategic importance, including the upcoming G20 Riyadh Summit in Riyadh and the Expo 2020 Dubai next year.

For mega-events like these to be successful, global connectivity is essential.

Rework what’s been successful

The concept is not new for Emirates and Etihad. A typical flight between Abu Dhabi and Los Angeles would take around 16 hours. Even for Australians traversing the globe from Europe to get home would include up to a 14-hour nonstop flight from Dubai. The recent spell of repatriation flights and cargo services from the UAE to other parts of the world during the pandemic also reinforces this.

Emirates will introduce the Boeing 777X and Boeing 787-9 Dreamliners to its fleet, both easily capable of ULH flight operations between continents, if configured accordingly. But as we’re not expecting air traffic levels to recover for several years, the smaller Boeing 787 Dreamliner will add greater flexibility to Emirates’ fleet in the event of a sudden shock that impacts on demand.

Use the geography

Conversely, despite changing traffic flows, the Middle East’s major carriers will always benefit from the region’s strategic geographical advantage, being one flight away from anywhere on the globe, which can never be underestimated.

As we have seen with existing ULH routes, air fares are charged at a premium. This is because airlines have fewer seats to fill which invariably pushes up the cost of flights over long distances to cover the cost of the operation.

That said, Middle East carriers, with their strong global brand recognition and extensive global network, can remain relevant against the emerging threat of ULH flights by providing a connecting flight cost advantage for consumers.

Rework fares

This is the opportunity for the Gulf carriers. If these carriers price fares competitively, there will be customers willing to pay less for a connecting flight as ULH flights will remain a premium product with premium pricing, targeting higher spending premium customers.

Middle East carriers should capitalise on affordability, but more strategically, consider the use of fuel-efficient long-range aircraft with smaller capacity that can serve nearby regions to feed passengers onto their long-haul services.

Ultimately, the Middle East’s super-connectors can effectively compete with ULH travel. But its commercial approach should really consider the psychology of today’s health- and cost-conscious passengers to fly ahead into the future alongside trailblazing ULH routes.

- Linus Benjamin Bauer is Managing Director at Bauer Aviation Advisory.