Qatar Airways nets a prized catch, expanding westwards

IT may seem somewhat crazy, but it is definitely not surprising in today’s aviation landscape of fast changing and crisscrossed relationships, some of them making most unlikely bedfellows. The ends justify the means.

Courtesy British Airways

Courtesy British Airways

Qatar Airways has acquired a 10% stake in International Airlines Group (IAG), better known as the owner of British Airways (BA) and Iberia. IAG also owns Spanish budget carrier Vueling. The act of acquisition itself by the cash-rich Middle East carrier does not surprise. Qatar lags behind rival Etihad Airways in this respect; Etihad already owns Alitalia (49%), Air Serbia (49%), Air Serbia (49%), Air Seychelles (40%), Etihad Regional (formerly Darwin Airlines) (33.3%), Air Berlin (29.21%), Jet Airways (24%), Virgin Australia (10%) and Aer Lingus (2.987%).

But coming lately, Qatar has bagged a prized acquisition, considering IAG’s bases at two major European hubs, in particular London Heathrow, and the strong transatlantic networks of BA and Iberia. Qatar chief executive Akbar Al Baker said: “IAG represents an excellent opportunity to further develop our westwards strategy.” It should be a strong partnership. Together, their networks cover Europe, North and South America, Africa, the Middle East, India and Southeast Asia.

In 2013 Qatar became a member of OneWorld, becoming the only one of the big three Gulf carriers to join a global airline alliance. More than an apparent Qatari interest in things British, this was a step forward to forge a closer relationship with BA. Qatar said it may increase its stake in IAG for which it paid £1.15 billion (US$1.73 billion). However, EU regulations have placed a cap on non-EU ownership at 49%.

Courtesy Qatar Airways

Courtesy Qatar Airways

Quite unlike Etihad, which has entered the arena as a white knight in many cases, Qatar is buying into one of Europe’s more profitable outfits. Clearly it is a strategic move. While European carriers are becoming wary of Gulf carriers making inroads in the EU market, the competition is at the same time a race among the big three Middle East carriers themselves- Qatar, Etihad and Emirates Airlines. This has become all the more prominent in recent years as they out-compete each other within their region and seek aggressively to push out their geographical boundaries, leveraging on the success of home bases such as Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Doha as hubs for international traffic connecting Asia Pacific, Europe, Africa and the Americas.

The rivalry for supremacy is clear in a jibe made by Mr Al Baker on the race to top the chart for extreme luxury in the air, something that carriers outside the Gulf are less disposed to think about at the same level. He said: “We always raise the bar for our dear friends around the area to try to copy us.” (The big deal about extreme luxury, Jan 19, 2015)

Courtesy PA

Courtesy PA


The timing could not have been better for Qatar as IAG looks likely to succeed in a new takeover bid of Irish carrier Aer Lingus after two failed attempts previously. This would gain IAG more take-off and landing slots at Heathrow. What is interesting is the composition of Aer Lingus partners, which include Ryanair (29.8%) and Etihad. Any opposition to the deal is likely to come from the Irish government which owns 25% of Aer Lingus, but it may be a price well worth paying for the crucial air links between cities in Ireland and Heathrow as the world’s largest hub (until topped by Dubai recently) and beyond. Ryanair has itself attempted unsuccessfully to take over Aer Lingus and objected vehemently to IAG’s proposal in the past for reasons that are not difficult to see. IAG’s chief executive officer Willie Walsh and Ryanair’s chief Michael O’Leary are not exactly the best of friends. But if money talks, the latest offer of €1.3billion (US$1.47 billion) by IAG may well carry the day.

Airline relationships in today’s industry are more complex, if not blatantly promiscuous. While global alliances offer the broad framework for cooperation, it is not uncommon to find rival airlines connected in some way through a third party. The numerous cross-border codeshare arrangements are testimony to the multi-faceted connections. Less than half the world’s airlines belong to any of the three global alliances: Star (27 members), SkyTeam (20 members), and OneWorld (15 members). Although many major carriers are already members, there are notable exclusions such Virgin Atlantic (although CEO Richard Branson who made an about turn in 2012 announcing Virgin might join one of the alliances soon) and the other two of the big three Gulf carriers Emirates and Etihad. While Aer Lingus itself is unaffiliated, and so are part owners Ryanair and Etihad, IAG’s influence cannot be precluded although it has said Aer Lingus would continue to operate independently.

It is best to adopt a detached view of the business. Alliance membership may but not necessarily suggest a like-mindedness that brings friends to the same table. There is no reason why friends and foes alike may not put their money in a common proposition that will help further their respective positions. OneWorld membership may have eased Qatar’s way into the IAG stable, making it easier for Mr Walsh to be “delighted to have Qatar Airways as a long term supportive shareholder.” Not sure if he would be any less delighted if it had been Emirates or Etihad. But for Qatar, as part owner of IAG which is set to take over Aer Lingus, it is stealing a march on rival Etihad.

This article was first published in Aspire Aviation.

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Gulf carriers compete for world dominance

WHILE Gulf carriers Emirates Airlines, Etihad Airways and Qatar Airways have become daunting competitors to other airlines across the globe, they are themselves competing with each other for world dominance.

All three airlines have been up there in the charts as world’s best in one category or another, garnering awards mainly for premium travel. A recent announcement by Etihad of its decision to no longer participate in Skytrax surveys – allegedly over disagreement on the rating system – has come as a surprise. Yet it may be a sign of there being one too many that points to a meaningless pursuit in a class deemed to be without real competition, and which can only lead to embittered rivalry. In the last Skytrax survey (2013), Etihad was the world’s “best first class”, “best first class seats” and “best first class catering”. But in the “best airline” category, it was placed seventh, far behind Emirates and Qatar which were ranked first and second respectively.

Is there even competition for Etihad’s new Residence suites? (see Extreme luxury: What price prestige? Jun 25, 2014) The race is on: Emirates has said it would introduce a similar product, and it is unlikely that Qatar will want to be left behind.

Interestingly, apart from spending big to acquire the best of equipment and pushing the limits on creature comforts, all three airlines seem to be pursuing different strategies for market dominance.

Courtesy Airbus

Courtesy Airbus


Emirates Airlines

Emirates is replicating the Singapore Airlines (SIA) story of the ‘70s and ‘80s, growing organically with giant strides as it expands its network. Last year it carried 44.5 million passengers to more than 133 cities in six continents. The number far exceeded Etihad’s 12 million passengers to more than 90 destinations and Qatar’s 18 million passengers to over 125 destinations. There are no indications of a likely change in course as Emirates continues to add new destinations in its expansion. Unlike Qatar, which has since joined OneWorld, and unlike Etihad, which has been on a binge to acquire equity in foreign carriers, Emirates remains very much a loner in the game, relying on its own strength and reputation for growth – again, quite reminiscent of the younger SIA.

But unlike SIA, which is a leading member of Star Alliance, Emirates does not believe in alliances. Echoing the sentiments of Virgin Atlantic chief Richard Branson, Emirates senior vice-president of commercial operations worldwide Richard Vaughan said in 2010: “We don’t believe in alliances. We intend to stay as an independent airline.” He believed that alliances reduce the airline’s ability to react swiftly changes in the market place and that they actually reduce competition and lead to higher fares. So true it is that when a passenger books a ticket with an alliance member airline, there is no guarantee that the passenger will be flying with the airline of choice. Under the circumstances, Emirates would have felt its product compromised.

Emirates’ stance has not changed. It has held out impressively during the economic crisis that saw many airlines scrambling to cut back services and subsequently entering into extensive commercial agreements with partner airlines. While Emirates maintains its independence, it has entered into code share agreements – a common industry practice – with a small number of airlines that include All Nippon Airways, Cathay Pacific and Air New Zealand. Its extensive non-equity partnership with Qantas made headline news in 2012, but it was a deal seen as impacting the Australian carrier more than Emirates. The Gulf carrier continues to steer clear of mergers and acquisitions although there was speculation of its interest in acquiring an ailing Indian carrier as India relaxes its rules on foreign ownership. The question remains as to whether Emirates can continue to buck the trend.

Courtesy Etihad Airways

Courtesy Etihad Airways


Etihad Airways

Etihad on the other hand has been acquiring stakes in foreign carriers besides a list of code-share partnerships that include Air France, American Airlines, All Nippon Airways and Cyprus Airways. The cash rich Gulf carrier partially owns Air Berlin (29.21%), Air Seychelles (40%), Aer Lingus (2.987%), Virgin Australia (10%), Jet Airways (24% – to be formalized), Jat Airways which has been renamed Air Serbia (49%), Darwin Airline which has been renamed Etihad Regional (33.3%) and Alitalia (49%). Some of those airlines have been shrouded in financial problems, such as Jet Airways of India and Italy’s flag carrier Alitalia which is already partially owned by Air France-KLM. In the case of Virgin Australia, Etihad also shared ownership with two other foreign carriers – SIA and Air New Zealand.

While code-share partners do little more than allowing airlines to sell seats on each other flights, equity alliances play a more forceful role for partner airlines to feed traffic into each other and provide seamless transfers in an extended network. For the ailing airline, Etihad is the white knight. For Etihad, it proffers the opportunity for growth via a third party. Alitalia, which is reeling in debts of about 800m euros (US$1.1bn), is looking to further injection of capital by Etihad to not only save it from the brinks of bankruptcy but also growth from then on. Italy’s transport minister Maurizio Lupi was elated by the deal. He said: “It’s increasingly clear that this marriage should happen because it’s obvious to all that we are dealing with a strong industrial investment that will offer our airline concrete growth prospects.” Someday Air France-KLM might wish it had enough gumption and money to raise its stake of 25% which has as a consequence dwindled to 7%. But Air France-KLM chief executive Alexandre de Juniac said Alitalia was not a priority at the moment. Still, Mr de Juniac viewed Etihad’s investment “with favor”, adding that the doors to KLM-Air France raising its stake were not closed.

Courtesy Qatar Airways

Courtesy Qatar Airways


Qatar Airways

Qatar is the only airline among the three Gulf carriers that has joined a global alliance, in its case OneWorld, whose members include Qantas, British Airways, American Airlines, Cathay Pacific and Japan Airlines. At its induction in 2013, Qatar chief executive Akbar Al Bakar said: “Alliances are playing an increasingly important role in the airline industry today – and that will continue long into the future. Becoming a member of OneWorld… will strengthen our competitive offering and give our customers what they fully deserve – more choice across a truly global network served together with airline partners.”

That is the ideal scenario, but in reality airline relationships are more complex than that. Without downplaying the benefits of global alliances such as wider network connections, shared facilities (Qantas/British Airways/Cathay Pacific premium lounge at Los Angeles Airport) and a dedicated terminal to enhance coordination (London Heathrow’s terminal 2 for Star Alliance members), member airlines have also entered into bilateral agreements across alliances. It is not uncommon to find rival airline connected in some way through a third party. Perhaps, in this context, lies the reason why Emirates and Etihad have so far not been convinced of the need to join any of the global alliances.

Whatever the strategy adopted by the Gulf carriers as they compete for world dominance, they have become daunting forces in the global market. Lufthansa’s new man at the helm Carsten Spohr has identified the competition posed by Gulf carriers as a major concern in Europe. In Asia, SIA is facing increased pressure from Gulf carriers tapping into its traditional market for traffic between Europe and Asia-Pacific and on the kangaroo route. While they have the means and resources to cut a product above the competition, it is their increased popularity that worry more their rivals, which will be relieved to see the Gulf carriers shifting their energies to outdoing each other instead, for the time being, in pushing the limits for the best Residential suites in the sky.

This article was first published in Aspire Aviation.

Qatar Airways takes on Singapore Airlines

Photo courtesy AisaOne

Photo courtesy AisaOne

IN an interview with the Straits Times at the Singapore Air Show, Qatar Airways chief Akbar al-Baker said: “I don’t think that there is any airline operating into Singapore, including Singapore Airlines (SIA), that offers this (Qatar’s) high standard of product.” (The Straits Times, Feb 13, 2014)

If anyone were to refute Mr al-Baker’s claim, he would probably point you to the 2013 Skytrax survey, which placed Qatar second after Emirates Airlines in the best airlines category. SIA was third.

Indeed, SIA should be flattered that many airlines have over the years used it as the benchmark for excellence. But it should be concerned that a number of them are now moving ahead, the competition coming strong from Middle East carriers that besides Qatar, include Emirates and Etihad Airways. In fact, Emirates which modelled itself on SIA could claim it has beaten the master at its game.

It is now up to SIA to show it is still the leader in the field when it looks like the Middle East carriers have brought the battle to its home ground. Of the three rivals, SIA may have found a friend in Etihad. Both airlines have stakes in Virgin Australia. Etihad chief James Hogan has said there is room for the two airlines to cooperate. Emirates has entered into a non-equity mega alliance with Qantas, and its impact on the kangaroo route competition cannot be underestimated.

Mr al-Baker however does not believe in the “smaller” alliances and chose to be a part of OneWorld instead. Referring to the Etihad strategy of picking up stakes in several airlines that include Virgin Australia, airberlin, Aer Lingus and Air Seychelles, Mr al-baker said: “We feel that joining a larger alliance serves the same purpose without those huge investments.” (See Etihad Airways on a roll picking up stakes in other airlines, Feb 4, 2014) Whatever the strategy, SIA is up against not one but three equally aggressive rivals from the same region.

Etihad on a roll picking up stakes in other airlines

Courtesy Etihad Airways

Courtesy Etihad Airways


IN October last year, ailing Alitalia sent out signals of an impending bankruptcy and needed help. Then rumours were rife that Air France-KLM – already the biggest shareholder of the beleaguered airline – might double its 25-per-cent stake, to gain greater access to the Italian market. But Air France-KLM was concerned about Alitalia’s debt. (See It’s the age of mega carriers: Will Air France-KLM raise its stake in ailing Alitalia? Oct 14, 2013)

Waiting at the sideline was cash-rich Middle East carrier Etihad Airways, which did not have to wait long to make the kill. Jointly with Alitalia, it announced they were close to an agreement for the Middle East carrier to own up to 40 per cent of the Italian airline. This would make Etihad a leading player among its rivals in the European market.

Alitalia chief executive Gabriele Del Torchio referred to the agreement as “an important step in creating a solid and competitive Alitalia.”

In fact, the focus is not Alitalia but Etihad. That probably explains how Air France-KLM baulked at pumping more money into the ailing airline, focusing on its debt, and paved the way for Etihad to add yet another acquisition to boost its global network. It already has stakes in Virgin Australia, Air Berlin, Air Seychelles, Aer Lingus and Air Serbia. Only recently did it take up a 24-per-cent stake in India’s Jet Airways, giving it inroads to the growing Indian domestic market.

Whose next, one might ask.