Air Transport World

Pirates or pioneers? Gulf Airlines are taking a lot of heat for their aggressive order books and appetite for expansion.(COMPETITION)

Throughout history, the fortunes of nations have been linked to access to trade and control of trade routes, with prosperity not always going to the strongest but to the most flexible. In the 21st century with globalization--and open skies--in full swing, airlines in the Persian Gulf region are not only financially strong but flexible and because of their geographic location they can offer passengers and freight forwarders the fastest routings between Southeast Asian and European city-pairs.


Led by Emirates, these carriers are raising concerns in airline boardrooms across Europe, southern Asia and Australia as they reshape traffic flows with massive aircraft orders and aggressive expansion. Some even view them as the modern-day equivalent of the 16th century pirates who gave the region its name "the Pirate Coast" by attacking ships plying the Britain-India trade routes.


But should those boardrooms be concerned? Do Emirates and others really deserve the title of pirates? Are they just plundering at will, stealing passengers from traditional European and Asia/Pacific flag airlines with ultra-low fares and rerouting them through Gulf airports? Are the steady stream of aircraft orders from Gulf-based carriers and the associated airport building boom just an oil-fueled grab for power or do they reflect a genuine shift in influence of 21st century trade routes?

Like beauty, the answer is in the eye of the beholder. Richard Aboulafia of Washington-based Teal Group describes the bulging Middle East order book as "a really interesting situation. …

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