Mideast Airlines Aim for Global Hub With New Jumbo Jets, Region’s Carriers Grow As Rivals Retreat

Climbing the stairway here Monday to the first Airbus superjumbo to join his expanding fleet, the chairman of Emirates was doing more than celebrating receipt of the world’s biggest passenger aircraft.

With Sheik Ahmed bin Saeed al-Maktoum taking possession of his long-awaited A380 plane, the moment represented a sign of the shifting balance of power in an aviation industry grappling with one of the biggest crises it has known.

As carriers from American Airlines to Thai Air are responding to a new era of high oil prices by shedding jobs, culling routes and grounding aircraft, Middle Eastern carriers are expanding as fast as they can in hopes of redefining their region as the aviation crossroads of the globe.

“There is no sign of a crisis there,” said Thomas Enders, the chief executive of Airbus, during an interview shortly before handing over the jet to the sheik. “These airlines are on a very impressive growth path and expansion course; they are steering a steady course while others are experiencing more difficulties.”

Emirates, which in 2000 became the first customer to sign a firm commitment to buy A380s, has increased its order from the initial seven by more than eightfold since then, despite a delay of nearly two years for the first delivery.

“Our 58 A380s will certainly fly the flag more, and farther, than all the others,” Ahmed said of the aircraft’s other customers, moments before a screen was lifted to reveal the double-decker plane taxiing toward him at the Airbus delivery center in Hamburg in northern Germany.

He took the opportunity to sign a letter of intent for another 60 Airbus jets with a total price tag of $13.3 billion: 30 wide-bodied A330 planes and 30 of the A350s that are still under development. The investment by Emirates in the A380 alone exceeds euro 32 billion, or $50 billion, Ahmed said.

The headwinds that are causing U.S., European and Asian airlines such grief – high oil prices and an economic downturn – are playing out to the advantage of carriers in the Gulf.

While Thai has suspended nonstop flights from Bangkok to New York, Air France-KLM is reining in its winter capacity growth and American, United and Qantas are eliminating jobs, the government- backed airlines like Emirates, Etihad, Qatar Airways and Saudi Arabian Airlines are adding routes, taking delivery of new aircraft and placing orders for more.

In a further sign of confidence, Emirates is creating a new airline: FlyDubai, a low-cost carrier scheduled to start operations next year. It leapfrogged three U.S. airlines to take early delivery positions for 50 Boeing jets that will serve countries like India and Pakistan.

“Here we have airlines with a clear view of what they want, using circumstances to accelerate growth,” said Chris Tarry, an analyst at Ctaira, a British aviation consulting firm.

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