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Which is the best airline in the Middle East?

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Over the last decade, Middle Eastern airlines have gone from being virtually unknown to becoming some of the biggest players in the industry.

But how did this happen? Well for starters they are already ideally located between Africa, Asia and Europe.  Add to that geographical advantage huge investments used to buy ultra-modern fleets and develop airports into international hubs. Then create an environment where you can operate these airports 24/7 attracting foreign talent with virtually tax-free salaries (and no unions to get in the way). And top it up with cheap oil. This is the not-so secret formula of their success.

Want to travel from Dakar to Beijing? Miami to Kathmandu? Oslo to Colombo? Your journey is going to involve a stopover in the Middle East.

While the airline space is ever more competitive, carriers such as FlyDubai, Oman Air or Saudia are vying for their share of the market. However, three airlines clearly stand out above the rest. They are Emirates, Etihad and Qatar Airways.

They are the biggest players in the region, giving away flights on Ellen, sponsoring football clubs and being endorsed by celebrities such as Nicole Kidman or Jennifer Aniston. Constantly adding new destinations and carrying more passengers each year, their growth appears to have no limits.

We compare the three main Persian Gulf airlines to try to find out which is the best airline in the middle east. We analyse where they fly, their fleet, safety levels, the comfort class on offer, service provided, their frequent flyer programme and the hub utilised.

Destinations

Etihad fly to 93 destinations worldwide, including the most important cities in North America and Australia. However, they serve just one destination in Latin America (Sâo Paulo), and in Africa their reach seems insufficient by comparison. Emirates operate flights to 135 destinations, covering more points in English speaking countries than their rivals. This includes cities like Dublin, Orlando and Brisbane.

Qatar Airways currently fly to 152 destinations around the world, with a strong focus on the Asian continent. Their plans for expansion include Skopje, Libreville, Douala and Lusaka. This will make Qatar one of the non-African airlines with the biggest number of destinations served on the continent, after Turkish Airlines and the Air France-KLM group.   

Winner: Qatar Airways for their extensive network.

Fleet (excluding cargo)

An Emirates A380 ©G patkar

An Emirates A380 ©G patkar

The fleet of Etihad consists of 115 aircraft. Their most common plane is the Boeing 777 and the Airbus A320. They still operate a few four-engine A340s. The average age of their fleet is 6.1 years according to Airfleets.

Emirates currently have 228 aircraft in their fleet. They are known for being the world’s biggest operator of the A380, and also have more Boeing 777-300 than any other airline. Their focus on those two models makes maintenance much easier, but there are fears the A380 could turn out to be a flop and leave the airline exposed. The average age of their fleet is just 5.8 years.

Qatar Airways have a fleet of 170 aircraft. The average age of their fleet is also 5.8 years. They are investing heavily in the latest models of Airbus A350 and Boeing 787.

Winner: It is a close call between all three, but Qatar Airways is the winner for their future orders of the most energy efficient aircraft

Safety

All three airlines are regarded as some of the safest in the world. Emirates and Etihad have been featured in 6th and 7th place respectively of the world’s 20 safest airlines survey conducted by AirlineRatings. That was before Emirates Flight 521 though, which crash-landed and caught fire at Dubai Airport in August 2016. There were no fatalities among passengers or crew, but the airplane had to be written off.

Winner: Etihad wins this category, although there are no safety issues with any of these airlines.

Classes

First class re-defined with The Residence ©Travelarz

First class re-defined with The Residence ©Travelarz

As is standard these days, all three airlines split their fares into three categories: Economy, Business and First. Some subcategories do exist, but these are the three basic ones.

There are few differences in Economy class. Etihad includes all the usual amenities: food and refreshments, inflight entertainment screens with all the latest movies, pillows and blankets. On longer flights, passengers are given an “amenity kit” consisting of a pair of socks, toothbrush, toothpaste, blindfold and earplugs. On A380 and 787 flights, economy passengers can benefit from their smart seats, with a fixed headrest designed to provide a surface for passengers to lean on and adjustable lumbar support. Legroom is 32in (81cm), quite standard these days with most airlines. Passengers can also benefit from free ground transfers to Dubai from Abu Dhabi airport.

Emirates rely on what is possibly the best inflight entertainment in the industry, including free WiFi and power sockets available on many of their flights. The kit bag includes an augmented reality game if you download the Blippar app on your mobile, but this is unlikely to excite anybody but young children.

Qatar Airways’ economy class is very similar to the other two, although their fares are structured differently into four categories: Promo, Saver, Value and Flexi. All three airlines have additional games and services available for young children.

As you would expect, things start to get more interesting in business and first class. With dedicated check-in, flatbeds, chef signature dishes on demand, champagne… even a shower on board (Emirates and Etihad on the A380) and all the necessary pampering to make you feel good about the price of the ticket.

Emirates also operate more than thirty of their own business lounges around the world, while Etihad have about a dozen but Qatar Airways own very few, and offer the majority of business lounges through third parties.

In addition to that, Emirates and Etihad offer their premium passengers a complimentary chauffeur service to and from the airport at most destinations.

The cherry on the cake for Etihad is called The Residence, which is only available on flights to London, New York, Sydney and Bombay. It promises to re-define air travel by providing those lucky customers with their own flying apartment, along with a butler throughout the entire length of the flight.

Winner: The standards across these airlines are very high, but Etihad wins with The Residence setting the bar higher than their competitors for first class travel.

Service

In an age where there are such few differences between airlines, service can be the real game changer. Customers will only return if they feel that the company cares about them. Never is this more evident than when things go wrong. And go wrong they do. Flights get delayed, technical problems arise, bad weather ground planes, and luggage gets lost.

It is extremely difficult to measure the level of service of an airline, let alone three. If all passengers were obliged to fill in a questionnaire on every flight, we may get a clear picture. Obviously this is not possible, so we have to rely on other methods.

There are a couple of websites out there that allow passengers to rate their airline experience based on a number of variables, such as seat and cabin space, customer service, meals and value for money.  

The reviews offer an entertaining read, but you do have to take them with a pinch of salt, just like you would with hotel reviews. That said, they do offer a great way to spot certain operational flaws.

This is how the three airlines measure up on Skytrax, out of a sample of about 3,000 reviews:

 

 

Airline

Etihad

Emirates

Qatar Airways

Food and beverages

3/5

3/5

4/5

Inflight entertainment

3/5

4/5

4/5

Seat comfort

3/5

4/5

4/5

Staff service

3/5

3/5

4/5

Value for money

3/5

4/5

4/5

Overall

5/10

6/10

8/10

 

 

Qatar Airways beat the other two airlines and score highly in all areas. While Emirates' weaker areas are the food and the service, Etihad has average scores in all categories and fails to impress.It is the youngest of the three airlines surveyed, so it is likely they are still some way away from consistently getting things right.

Furthermore, Emirates won the Skytrax world airline award for best airline of the year in 2016, with Qatar Airways second and Etihad taking sixth place overall.

Winner: Qatar Airways narrowly win this one by obtaining the best reviews and achieving second place in the world’s top ten airlines ranking.

Loyalty Programme

The perfect frequent flyer programme does not exist. This is because no loyalty scheme is ideal for everyone, so it is up to the individual to choose the one that matches his or her lifestyle.

On the surface, the air miles club of Etihad, Emirates and Qatar Airways are very similar. They have four tiers, you can pay for flights with miles, receive exclusive travel offers, go through priority check-in and boarding, get extra luggage allowance, gain miles with many partners, access to business lounges etc.

The difference is in the detail. The miles obtained are valid for three years with Emirates regardless of tier, with Etihad they are valid for three years for gold and platinum members only, and Qmiles on Qatar Airways never expire for Platinum members as long as they retain the Platinum tier.

Etihad Guest guarantees a business seat to their platinum members if they book a flight up to 12 hours before the flight. Emirates have a similar scheme but the time limit is 48 hours, and it does not apply during certain holidays. Qatar Airways guarantees economy seats to their gold and platinum members up to 48 hours before departure, and premium economy seats 72 hours prior.

Access to business lounges is another common perk. Etihad and Qatar Airways allow silver, gold and platinum access to their business lounges, while you have to be gold or platinum to access the business lounge with Emirates. Qatar Airways is also the most generous scheme for guests, allowing platinum members up to two accompanying guests, and up to five complimentary guest passes to their first class lounge.

Additional checked baggage allowance with Emirates is 12kg for Silver, 16kg for Gold and 20kg for Platinum. For Qatar Airways, it is 10kg for Silver, 15kg for Gold, and 20kg for Platinum. And with Etihad it depends on the origin/destination of the flight, but goes up to 23kg for Silver, and 32kg for Gold and Platinum.

Winner: The result is a draw.

Hub

Hamad International Airport ©Iash16

Hamad International Airport ©Iash16

Just as important as the airline, is the hub it operates from. Passengers expect more and more these days from airports. Speedy security checks and border controls, free WiFi, international retail brands, business lounges, special assistance, prayer rooms, restaurants, spas… and much more.

Airports are hives of activity, like cities within cities. These are the hubs used by the three airlines:

 

Airline

Etihad

Emirates

Qatar Airways

Hub

Abu Dhabi International Airport

Dubai International Airport

Hamad International Airport

 

 

Testament to their importance, are the numbers currently being managed in Middle East aviation. Dubai has now taken over London Heathrow as the busiest airport in the world by international passenger traffic, according to the ACI. Doha is in 16th place and Abu Dhabi is ten places behind, but both are growing at spectacular rates.

Hamad International is also among the world’s best rated airports in the world, a list currently topped by Singapore Changi.

It is also worth noting that, unlike other gulf airports that can only be reached by car, Dubai airport is connected by light rail to the city.

Winner: Emirates, for having one of the world’s leading airports as its hub, and arguably the most desirable stopover city.

Conclusion

And the best airline of the Middlle East is… well if only it were that simple. Qatar Airways wins three categories, Etihad two, and Emirates just one.Thus Qatar Airways would be the deserved winners. The reality however is more complicated.

Emirates have paved the way for other airlines in the region, setting a new standard in the airline industry. Dubai has become a travel destination in its own right partly thanks to Emirates and has a highly developed tourism industry. The same cannot be said of Abu Dhabi or Doha, still widely regarded as oil-rich business cities.

The Emirates Group, which includes dnata, the air services supplier, continues to power ahead further establishing itself as the leading airline in the Middle East. Through their widely recognised brand, they have brought the glamour back to aviation that was lost when Pan Am went bankrupt.  With 3,600 flights per week, they carry more passengers than the other two airlines combined. 

What our analysis reveals however is that Emirates are facing more competition than ever before. Their crown as undisputed leaders in the region is under threat, especially from the Doha-based airline. Qatar Airways are expanding aggressively. They already fly to more destinations than Emirates. Once the more efficient aircraft orders have been fulfilled, they will be well placed to become the best airline in the Middle East. There is a feeling out there that Emirates have peaked as an airline, and their excellent standards are somehow not the same as they were a few years ago. They are not alone in facing criticism though. Qatar Airways were forced to review its staff policy in 2015 after being exposed for sacking cabin crew if they got married or pregnant.

Etihad, on the other hand, has followed a different path by acquiring stakes in the airlines Air Berlin, Alitalia, Air Seychelles and Jet Airways. This has proved to be a costly move and brought them many unexpected headaches. Innovations such asThe Residence have made headlines the world over and their association with Manchester City has been a success for the brand. Now they just have to work harder to live up to the high expectations they have placed on themselves. 

All three Middle East carriers face growing tensions over access to markets in Europe and the US. Many accuse them of unfair competition and receiving government subsidies. While nobody really knows what will happen in the future, we are convinced these airlines will be flying for many years to come.

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