x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Gulf carriers' Australia focus grows

Gulf airlines stand to benefit from the crisis at Qantas, which on Saturday took the unprecedented step of grounding all its planes due to an ongoing industrial dispute.

More than 68,000 passengers were left stranded after Qantas on Saturday grounded its entire fleet. Marianna Massey / AFP
More than 68,000 passengers were left stranded after Qantas on Saturday grounded its entire fleet. Marianna Massey / AFP

Gulf airlines stand to benefit from the crisis at Qantas, which on Saturday decided to ground all its planes due to an ongoing industrial dispute.

The move by Australia's biggest airline gives an opportunity for carriers such as Etihad Airways and Emirates Airline to "snare their rival's customers", according to one analyst. More than 68,000 passengers were left stranded after Qantas on Saturday grounded its entire fleet.

In response, Abu Dhabi's Etihad said it was examining ways to boost capacity on Australian routes in conjunction with its partner Virgin Australia.

"We are already looking at a range of options to support Virgin Australia in its home market by freeing up additional capacity if required," said James Hogan, the chief executive of Etihad.

Mr Hogan said potential options being discussed with Virgin Australia included a shuttle service between Sydney and Melbourne using Etihad aircraft, and the operation of a daily flight between Sydney and Bangkok.

Alan Joyce, the chief executive of Qantas,grounded the fleet without warning, saying the airline would resume services only if the local regulator ensured a halt to strikes. This happened late last night when Fair Work Australia ruled that strikes and overtime bans organised by three unions representing Qantas pilots, mechanics, baggage handlers and caterers over recent months had to stop.

Mr Joyce, said the airline could resume a limited flight schedule this afternoon if the aviation regulator approved it.

Virgin Australia said it planned to offer about 6,500 extra seats yesterday and today, and claimed to have "helped over 20,000 affected Qantas passengers with special discounted fares".

The airline said "discussions are advancing with alliance partners Etihad Airways, Singapore Airlines, Air New Zealand and Delta Air Lines in regards to adding extra capacity".

Etihad operates 24 weekly flights from Australia to the UK, Europe, the Middle East and North America. Emirates and Qatar Airways also operate routes to Australia.

Saj Ahmad, the chief analyst at FBE Aerospace London, said Gulf airlines stood to benefit from the decision by Qantas.

"In the short term, the damage the airline has caused itself will allow customers to switch to the likes of Emirates, Etihad Airways and Qatar Airways," he said.

"Most notably, Emirates has sought to expand its Australian services and this Qantas angst gives them a great opening to snare their rival's customers - possibly for good." Mr Ahmad likened the situation to rivalry between the UK operators British Airways and Virgin Atlantic.

"In the same way that British Airways lost lucrative customers during its strikes to Virgin Atlantic, the Arab carriers have an opportunity to maximise their presence by assisting those affected Qantas passengers," he said.

There is a history of sniping between Qantas and Gulf-based airlines, which have been steadily expanding their routes to Australia over recent years.

"Qantas has been, in the past, very vocal about so-called state-supported Arab airlines eroding its market share. Qantas has shot itself in the foot with this latest industrial dispute, since it now serves the interests of those competitors who it levelled accusations at," said Mr Ahmad.

"This is not about subsidies or state support - the fact remains that the GCC airlines serving Australia are doing so without the corporate woes seen at Qantas. Their businesses have never succumbed to such disputes and providing continuity is what passengers want, and this is ultimately what will lead Qantas to suffer at the hands of its GCC rivals," he added.

Emirates declined to comment specifically on the Qantas issue. "All Emirates flights are operating as scheduled," said a spokeswoman for the airline. Qatar Airways did not respond to a request for comment.

bflanagan@thenational.ae