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Middle East aviation prepares for take-off in 2024

2023 has just been a starter. The really impressive stuff is yet to come

middle east aviation 2024 Shutterstock
All the major carriers have focused on premium, high-value repeat travellers

With record profits, new routes, fresh orders and significant management changes, 2023 was an exceptional year for the Middle East aviation market.

However in reality this past year has been all about setting the foundations for the next five years. Anything we have seen this year is just a starter.

The headline numbers are impressive: 255 million seats operated, an increase of 16 percent year-on-year, and more than 2,740 different routes flown, with new routes being added every month. 

Much of this year’s attention has been split between the two largest competing markets, Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

Just last month, Emirates ordered 95 new aircraft. Saudi Arabia’s low-cost carrier, FlyNas placed an order for 30 more A320 planes in June. Qatar Airways finally resolved its difference with Airbus and started accepting new A350s in March, with some 184 aircraft still to be delivered.

Nowhere else in the world would you see such “tit for tat” expansion: keeping up with the Joneses in this market is an expensive hobby! 

Looking at the hard numbers, the Emirates Group announced a half-year profit of $2.7 billion in November. This is a 138 percent improvement on the previous year, and the expectation is that the full-year results will be the best yet. 

Qatar Airways just broke the $1 billion profit mark for the first six months of the year, and Etihad is on track for another year of profitable operations. Meanwhile Saudia, which adopts a low-key stance on such announcements, will “perhaps” be profitable in 2023.

Clearly, the region’s larger airlines are delivering on the financials while also investing in their respective products. 

For all the major carriers the focus has been on the premium, high-value repeat traveller.

Emirates continues to roll out its Premium Economy product. For many airlines CEOs, premium economy has become the most profitable cabin on their long-haul fleets. 

Qatar Airways meanwhile has won plaudits for its Q Suite, which is pitched as an ultra high-end business class product. 

Etihad’s new home terminal A provides a bright and airy facility that will make a welcome change from the old airport. The new terminal has already enticed Air France/KLM and British Airways back to the fold. Germany’s Lufthansa could be next.

middle east aviation 2024Dubai Airports
Middle East airlines operated 455 billion available seat kilometres in 2023 – equivalent to over half a million round trips to the moon and back

Two new leaders are now in charge at Qatar Airways and Etihad. The respective CEOs will no doubt seek to make an impression on both their owners and customers with new ideas and strategies.

This year has certainly delivered an impressive set of results, operating statistics and interesting stories.

Perhaps the most impressive is that Middle East carriers will have operated some 455 billion available seat kilometres, equivalent to more than half a million trips to the moon and back. What’s more, most of those miles were in economy class.

The really impressive stuff is yet to come, however. In 2024, Riyadh Air will finally put its flights on sale, as the airline readies for commercial operations. The super hubs of Saudi Vision 2030 will take shape and the Emirati national airlines will take delivery of more aircraft as they seek both to defend their market shares and add new destinations. 

At the very heart of all these developments will be the passengers, who will be offered more choice, improved products, and lower fares. The next few years are going to be an exciting time for the aviation sector throughout the Middle East.

John Grant is partner at UK consultancy Midas Aviation

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