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Observation Deck

A Wide(ning) Gulf

A review of changes in the Middle East airline industry during the last 44 years

Three airlines headquartered in the Middle East, and for that matter, within close proximity of each other, have been in the news quite frequently in recent times. Emirates has built a massive hub at Dubai, and is the largest operator of the world’s largest airliner, the Airbus A380; Etihad, also based in the United Arab Emirates, albeit based at Abu Dhabi, is an A380 customer as well; Qatar Airways, based nearby in Doha is noteworthy for having taken the first delivery of the Airbus A350, and, not surprisingly, also rosters the A380.

Interestingly, these three airlines are based (and hub) in locations with, by global standards, moderate population levels and local air traffic potential. They utilize the operational model pioneered by Singapore Airlines in Asia; to some extent, this also follows the historical practices of KLM, which has carried a great deal of so-called “Sixth Freedom” connecting traffic over its Amsterdam hub, as well. However if you look back at the airline scene in the Middle East as of the early to mid-1970s, things were very different, particularly prior to the rapid rise of oil prices in the aftermath of the 1973 oil embargo. For starters, none of the three Gulf-based carriers mentioned above existed. The UAE, in conjunction with Bahrain, Oman and Qatar was home to Gulf Airways, one of a number of attempts at multi-national airlines over the years.

(For the record, I’m considering “Middle East” to include countries in Asia west of Afghanistan and Pakistan; while Turkey might seem to fit in this geography, it has long wanted to become part of the European Union, and is a member of NATO. Israel qualifies on pure geography, but has never been used significantly as an airline connecting hub, for a variety of reasons.)

A glance at the 1971 jp-aircraft-marking reference book (only in its sixth year, at that point, and now known as jp airliner fleets) paints a look at a very different – and much smaller – airline world in the Middle East. Saudi Arabian Airlines, headquartered in a relatively large and now populous country, had a fleet that included just 7 jet aircraft: 2 Boeing 707-300Cs; a pair of smaller (and older) Boeing 720Bs; and a trio of DC-9-15s, the smallest-fuselage version of the Douglas type. They were handily outnumbered by the 12 DC-3s in the airline’s fleet, along with other piston types including the Convair 340 and Douglas DC-6. Interestingly, the three DC-9s would later be sold to U.S. carrier Ozark. Today’s Saudia has a large fleet of (mostly) large aircraft, up to and including the Boeing 747.

Neighbors (and sometime opponents) Iran and Iraq were well established on the airline map by the early 1970s. Iran Air, in addition to having DC-3s and DC-6s in its fleet in 1971 also had nine Boeing jets (737s, 727s, 707s); by 1974 a pair of 747SPs were on order, and prior to the 1979 revolution, Iran Air’s 747s could be seen routinely at New York’s JFK airport. Iraqi Airways in 1971 catered to more of a regional market, utilizing a fleet consisting largely of British-built turbine-powered aircraft, including four Viscounts, three Hawker-Siddeley Tridents, plus a pair of Antonovs from the USSR.

Effectively the most prominent Middle Eastern airline as of the early 1970s was the eponymously-named Middle Eastern Airlines, the flag carrier of Lebanon. Strife is no stranger to either the country or the region; MEA had the dubious distinction of having much of its fleet destroyed on the ground at Beirut by the Israeli Air Force in 1968. By 1971, it had rebuilt robustly, and had the largest jet fleet in the region: a Caravelle; a Comet 4; four Convair 990s; three Boeing 720Bs; and three 707-300Cs. By 1974, the fleet had grown (and been simplified) to thirteen 720Bs (with eight more on order), plus the 707s and the Caravelle. Today, the carrier plays a relatively modest role in the region with a fleet of Airbus A320s/A321s and a few A330s.

Finally, what about Gulf Air? In the 1971 JP-Fleets, you’ll find it listed in the UK section, since all of its rather diverse fleet (comprising Beechcraft, Shorts Skyvans, DC-3s, Fokker F27s, BAC One-Elevens and a Vickers VC-10) were registered in the United Kingdom, although the carrier’s headquarters was indicated as Bahrain. In the 1970s, Lockheed L-1011s replaced the VC-10s; this aircraft type was utilized on a transatlantic interchange service with TWA, with the U.S. carrier flying the New York-London sector.

Today that the UAE and Qatar have gone in different directions, as has Oman, although the latter is on a far smaller scale. Gulf Air is now the flag carrier of Bahrain, and operates a smaller fleet over a more regional Europe-Asia route network than the Gulf “Big Three”.

It’s evident that the airline situation in the Middle East has been quite dynamic in the last 40-odd years, with significant changes resulting from sources ranging from natural resource prices to political upheavals. It will be interesting to see how the region’s air carriers progress and change even over the next decade, as well as a longer period of time. A word to the wise (or better yet, the wary) forecasters: trends at entities that have shown this much dynamic change rarely progress in straight lines, or even, in the case of more sophisticated forecasting, smooth curves. Of course, if you’re confident that you can predict oil prices and the political (and religious) nature of the Middle East a decade from now, it shouldn’t be a problem to forecast the future state of its airline industry, however. Good luck!

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