x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

The gulf in the hearts of Willie and Pierre

The chiefs of BA, Air France and other European carriers watch in fear as Middle East airlines elbow their way into their territories and profit margins.

Air travel brings out the worst in all of us. The altitude seems to release the bile that's confined to our livers on terra firma.

We get a bit stroppy at the slightest inconvenience. If our fellow passengers encroach on what we think is our share of the elbow rest, we become silent rutting caribous of the skies. The seat divider is our Verdun and they shall not pass.

Airline chiefs feel the same when they think their elbows are being squeezed. Take Pierre-Henri Gourgeon, the chief executive of Air France who last week accused some Middle East carriers of benefitting from government support.

Pierre must feel like he's wedged in the middle row with Emirates Airline in the window seat pinching his prawn cocktail and Etihad Airways in the aisle, sampling his cheese and crackers.

It wouldn't be so bad if Qatar Airways wasn't sitting in the seat behind, jabbing the back of his headrest while scrolling through movie selections on what is probably a vastly superior inflight entertainment system.

To make matters worse, the flight attendant bringing him his cafe au lait seems to have gone on strike.

European carriers are watching the rapid ascent of Gulf airlines with what must be genuine fear. They see bigger airports, newer planes and cabin crew that carry trays of tasty treats instead of angry placards demanding better pay and conditions.

On the day Dubai Airport announced a 25 per cent surge in passenger traffic, air services in France faced extensive strike disruption, while across the English channel, British Airways (BA) workers were being balloted after months of costly industrial action.

Passenger data shows travellers are increasingly changing planes in Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Doha at the expense of Heathrow, Charles de Gaulle and Schiphol in Amsterdam. The European carriers point to state subsidies as a reason for this.

"We cannot compete sustainably for passengers if, as a result of government intervention, non-European hubs benefit, thereby drawing passengers, cargo, employment and economic growth away from Europe," says Willie Walsh, the chief executive of BA.

The crux of the complaint is that airlines in Europe and the US are denied export guarantees in countries where Airbus and Boeing aircraft are made. Since the credit crunch, access to such finance has been vital to fund aeroplane purchases.

But trying to analyse the extent to which regional carriers benefit from state support at the expense of their European rivals may be a fool's errand.

This row is really about the changing trade winds of the global economy, the migration of wealth from West to East and the shifting patterns of international travel.

It's also about pride. National airlines are flag carriers in more ways than one and their successes and failures are never just about business. When BA decided to ditch the Union Jack from its tail fins back in 1997, Margaret Thatcher, the then British prime minister, reacted like she'd been invited to dinner at an Argentinian steak house in Port Stanley.

After being shown a model of a Union Jack-less plane, she simply dropped her handkerchief over it and walked on without a backward glance. If the lady was not for turning, neither was the British public of the time. Within a few years, BA had reintroduced the flag.

These days consumers care less about flags than fares.  Service and comfort count more than some vague sense of corporate patriotism. After all, BA has been run by an Irishman since 2005. Nobody has dared to tell Maggie yet.

We all like to fly in shiny new aircraft and land in shiny new terminals. Today a great many of them are in the region and tomorrow there will be many more.

The International Air Travel Association this week said that Middle East airlines would spend US$200 billion (Dh734.58bn) over the decade on plane purchases and another $100bn on building airports. That's an argument you don't want to be on the wrong side of.

At the last count, Airbus and Boeing had orders for 300 wide-body aircraft from Emirates, Qatar Airways and Etihad alone - a great number of which are made in Europe where their manufacture generates thousands of jobs and billions of euros. For this reason alone it seems hard to imagine Europe kicking up over subsidies.

But that does not mean European carriers will not continue to make noise over the issue whenever and wherever they can to avoid losing the market share that gives their alliances the critical mass needed to compete in the modern world.

As Mr Walsh once said: "A reasonable man gets nowhere in negotiations."

The real coup of the Gulf Airlines has been their brand building behind enemy lines. Gulf airline sponsorship is everywhere in Europe. The fans of Arsenal and Paris St Germain watch their teams play at the weekend with "Fly Emirates" written across the chests of their sporting idols. Manchester City has Etihad.

Sky News viewers watch the weather to see the face of a beautiful and beguiling Qatar Airways air hostess smiling back at them, somehow making the prospect of scattered showers over Bolton that bit easier to bear. What's more, she never goes on strike. Willie and Pierre would love to clone her. But they can't.

The appeal of Gulf airlines does not stop there. There is even more choice when it comes to food. When booking flights for the visiting outlaws this week I counted 18 different meals listed on the Qatar Airways website. They seemingly covered every culture, religion, nut allergy and lactose intolerance. They even had one called "Bland Meal". If only restaurant menus were so honest.

In the end I ticked "Kosher" for the mother in law and "Hindu Non-Vegetarian" for the father in law, just for the heck of it. In my heart I knew they were in the Bland Meal demographic but as I will tell them when they arrive on their flight-only package, travel should be all about adapting to new experiences.

Willie and Pierre will be able to identify with that.