As aviation executives descend on Dubai for the biennial air show, the biggest question is whether the expo will lose its sparkle amid tough times for the Gulf’s leading airlines.
While smaller in scale than trade fairs held in Paris and Farnborough, England, the event has acquired a unique allure since it began in 1986, hosting a series of industry-shaking jet orders as Mideast carriers piled on planes at their desert mega-hubs. Here’s a summary of the likely talking points at this year’s event, which begins Sunday:
A380’s Last Chance: Can Emirates Save Superjumbo?
Airbus’ double-decker jet may be popular with the traveling public but it has fallen out of favor with fleet planners at the world’s major airlines. All except one, that is. Emirates, the world’s biggest long-haul carrier, has built its business around the A380 and is mulling a follow-on deal for at least 20 planes. Top Airbus managers met with Emirates last week for the handover of its 100th example and will have been delighted to hear positive comments about the likelihood of a deal in Dubai, where it is based. Anything short of an order announcement would come as a major shock and could hasten the superjumbo’s demise; a major purchase would give the program a shot in the arm and restore some of the Dubai razzmatazz.
Gulf Loses Aviation Sparkle Amid Etihad, Qatar Woes
Away from the A380, major orders may be thin on the ground. Emirates itself is emerging from the toughest period in a three-decade history, having posted the first earnings decline for at least five years in the 12 months through June after the US imposed a series of travel restrictions amid terror concerns and the low oil price roiled Gulf economies. A jump in first-half profit announced Thursday will go some way to restoring the carrier’s old swagger, but may have come too late for it to place an order for Airbus A350 or Boeing 787 planes that’s been in gestation for years. By comparison, the Middle East’s two other top operators are in a bind. Qatar Airways said this week that it’s headed for an annual loss, wiping out a $525 million year-ago profit, amid a Saudi-led blockade of its home nation that’s also expected to stop executives attending the show. And Etihad Airways has been left reeling following a $1.87 billion loss in 2016 and bankruptcy filings at its Air Berlin and Alitalia offshoots.
Will Asian Discounters Rescue Dubai Order Tally?
Four years back, carriers announced a record $179 billion of orders in Dubai. Since then, things have cooled. Only $4 billion of new contracts was unveiled at the 2015 show, and with Gulf operators licking their wounds, Asia may hold the brightest sales prospects. Discount giants such as AirAsia and Lion Mentari Airlines are buying hundreds of jets as they target a growing middle class, joined more recently by the likes of India’s IndiGo, and despite infrastructure constraints and fare wars there may be scope for further deals. More-traditional operators such as Cathay Pacific Airways have also been topping up their backlogs. Asian carriers have traditionally favored high-profile events for order announcements, and Dubai would fit the bill.
Airbus-Bombardier Deal Warms Up Boeing Rivalry
The hottest thing at the show may be the rivalry between Airbus and Boeing, four weeks after the European company revealed that it planned to take a majority stake in Bombardier’s C Series program. The tie-up will put Airbus’s global sales clout behind the stuttering project and allow planes to be built in Alabama, circumventing tariffs imposed by the US after Boeing argued that the single-aisle jet had benefited from illegal Canadian aid. The rivalry between the leading manufacturers is always a feature of the industry’s leading expos, with Boeing scoring an order victory in Airbus’s own backyard at this summer’s Paris event as it launched a new variant of its 737. The US company may be anticipating a low-profile show – but watch the sparks fly if Bombardier firms up its first major C Series deal in 18 months.
$36 Billion Hub Hosts Expo But Precious Few Flights
Already home to the world’s busiest hub for international traffic, Dubai is spending $36 billion on a brand new facility at the heart of a 50-square-mile logistics and transport zone to the south of the city. While Al Maktoum airport opened in 2013 and was due to accommodate 26 million passengers by 2017 out of a planned capacity of 160 million, the ramp up has fallen a year behind schedule. Emirates has meanwhile delayed its move there from 2015 until as late as 2030. While next week’s show will take place at a purpose-built venue located at the new site, the bulk of people travelling there will arrive at the old hub the best part of 40 miles away.
On the Defensive: Arab Tensions Stoke Military Intent
Regional rivalries have intensified amid conflicts in Syria and Yemen, with the latter regarded as a proxy for Saudi Arabia’s confrontation with Iran. The world’s biggest oil-producing nation is also the No. 1 importer of weaponry including Eurofighter’s Typhoon warplane, with the partnership of BAE Systems, Airbus and Italy’s Leonardo seeking to pin down a follow-on order. On the other side of the divide, Qatar in September signed an outline accord for 24 Typhoons, following deals for the same number of Rafale jets from France’s Dassault Aviation and 36 Boeing F-15s. At the same time, the lower oil price has weighed on spending and triggered economic and social reforms including an anti-corruption crackdown on Saudi royalty, billionaires and officials.
Last Hurrah for Industry Titans at Scene of Past Triumphs
The Dubai show could be the last for two giants of aviation. Emirates President Tim Clark has said that his years at the helm may be drawing to a close, while Airbus sales supremo John Leahy has already announced his retirement. Both men are aged 67 (Clark turns 68 this month) and both are likely to want to go out with a splash, something the mooted A380 purchase would most certainly deliver. With Emirates earnings headed in the right direction Clark may be the more relaxed of the two; Leahy, who has drummed up $1.7 trillion in orders including huge deals in Dubai, has already had to delay his departure after his chosen successor dropped out of the running as the planemaker’s management focuses on a corruption probe. Airbus says he’ll still be gone by February.