CHARLOTTE, NC, May 3, 2016 – There may be another war developing with the Middle East, but, oddly enough, this time it might be beneficial for American air travelers.
The international marketplace for air travel is a hotbed of growth for the airlines while domestic markets are stagnating. Consequently, the three major U.S. airlines, Delta, United and American, are seeking to expand globally in order to strengthen their market share.
But there’s a problem.
Suddenly out of nowhere, three lesser known airlines to most American travelers have emerged as dominant international carriers. Perhaps because they are based in the Middle East, and perhaps partly because they are still developing new routes to compete with their American counterparts, they remain relatively unknown to U.S. travelers, but the name recognition is rapidly changing and the results could be dramatic.
Etihad Airways, Qatar Airways and Emirates are challenging Western air carriers with new planes and, more importantly, improved services that are increasingly difficult to challenge.
Business travelers who have flown with Emirates recently will tell you that the airline is far and away the best in the business these days when it comes to providing customer service and comfort. Etihad and Qatar are also seeing similar results which are quickly eroding load capacities from three major U.S. domestic airports that are hubs for routes to the Middle East and Asia.
Due to international mergers, alliances and joint ventures, if Lufthansa suffers, then so does United. When KLM and Air France lose travelers, then Delta feels the pinch.
Time was when flying was a glamorous proposition. People even “dressed up” to fly.
Then, thanks to rampant financial stress, increased security at airports, high fuel costs and any number of other variables, airlines cut services drastically and began adding “gimmicky” costs, such as charging for luggage, which made them profitable again.
In the process however, air travel became little more than a high speed bus service with wings.
As the three Gulf States carriers have improved services and comfort dramatically without increasing costs, other international airlines are crying foul because of competitive imbalances.
The basic complaint is the ability of Middle Eastern governments to subsidize their carriers which the American airlines say gives them a huge advantage.
Recently the United Arab Emirates spent nearly $8 billion to expand the airport in Dubai to the benefit their national carrier.
To counter the situation, some carriers are calling for Open Skies agreements which allow airlines from different countries equal access to another country’s airports without interference from the government of that country.
Flights between the U.S. and the Middle East from Boston are said to be down 23 percent. Loads from Dulles, the international airport in Washington, DC, are off by 25 percent and Seattle has seen a drop of 28 percent.
The key to the decrease is apparently competition from the Gulf States airlines that have swung the pendulum back to the “golden age” of flying by offering services and comfort that have been reduced by other international airlines in an effort to grow their bottom line.
While the future of international air travel is still unclear, what is obvious that the global marketplace is vital and growing and if Middle Eastern airlines are able to provide vastly superior services at competitive rates, the decline for American carriers may continue.
As these “unknown” airlines from the Gulf continue to make inroads into key routes, it may result in improved service across the board by American carriers in order to remain competitive. In the long run, that would seem to be beneficial to travelers.
In the realm of government subsidies, one of the challenges for American airlines is the obligation to open their books as publicly traded corporations. This is not a requirement for the Gulf airlines since they are government funded which makes it more difficult for American carriers to offset competition.
In the end, the final result could be improved customer service and comfort for international airline travelers and, much like the current climate for change in the establishment in Washington in the presidential campaigns, a similar evolution could be in progress at 35,000 feet.
Stay tuned, the “free” peanuts may be coming back.
Bob Taylor has been traveling the world for more than 30 years as a writer and award winning television producer focusing on international events, people and cultures around the globe.
Taylor is founder of The Magellan Travel Club (www.MagellanTravelClub.com)
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