DUBAI After years as the brash outsiders in the industry, fast-growing Gulf airlines are starting to take a more cooperative approach, seeking alliances rather than direct confrontation with big carriers in the rest of the world.
The shift, which appears to be in response to tough market conditions and a realisation that the Gulf airlines cannot sustain their breakneck expansion indefinitely, may benefit consumers by providing more integrated flight schedules and helping carriers cut costs, which could in some cases translate into lower fares.
Qatar Airways last week became the first major Gulf airline to announce plans to join the oneworld alliance. Members of the alliance, which includes American Airlines AAMRQ.PK, British Airways (ICAG.L) and Cathay Pacific (0293.HK), cooperate in areas such as route networks, frequent flyer schemes and parts procurement.
That deal was announced shortly after archrival Etihad Airways, Abu Dhabi's flag carrier, sealed a codeshare deal with Air France-KLM (AIRF.PA), under which they will share flights.
Emirates entered a codeshare deal with Australia's Qantas (QAN.AX) earlier this year, the first for the Dubai-based giant, which had previously steered clear of alliances and relied on organic growth by expanding its fleet.
"This is great news for the consumers," Tony Tyler, chief executive of the International Air Transport Association (IATA), said at an industry conference in Abu Dhabi on Tuesday.
"Alliances help airlines offer very competitive fares on other airline networks. So consumers can go around world at competitive prices."
Airline alliances were set up in the 1990s to help carriers benefit from each other's marketing efforts and route networks in the face of national regulators' tight control over traffic rights. In addition to oneworld, the big alliances are Star, which includes Lufthansa (LHAG.DE), and SkyTeam, which includes Air France-KLM and U.S. carrier Delta (DAL.N).
The entry of major Gulf airlines into alliances took many industry analysts by surprise. The three top carriers, created over two decades from the mid-1980s, are backed by rich governments, enjoy modern aviation infrastructure and are based in a part of the world near several key population centres.
This has allowed them, relying on their own resources, to transform the Gulf into an intercontinental hub. In doing so, they took away a big chunk of market share from the older airlines; the share of Middle East and North Africa airlines in international traffic has jumped from 4.8 percent in 2002 to 11.5 percent, according to IATA.
The Gulf carriers have become huge in the process. Emirates is one the largest customers of Airbus EAD.PA, ordering over 90 A380 superjumbos, while last week Etihad reported a 19 percent year-on-year rise in third-quarter revenues, a growth rate far beyond the capabilities of most Western carriers.
Emirates "have been resolute in going it alone and with their current performance and planned capacity growth, they can afford to wait and see hasty marriages of convenience unravel rather than act in haste," said Sudeep Ghai, partner at consultants Athena Aviation.
At this week's Abu Dhabi conference, however, the rhetoric was more about cooperation than competition.
"It's a new era of global aviation," Etihad's chief executive James Hogan told reporters at the event.
"The old era, like any business cycle, has to change. We have to change or we die. I think we are seeing the result of all the Gulf carriers being innovative and taking advantage of our geographic positioning, and partnering with airlines who see that same opportunity."
Several factors appear to be behind the change of heart. One, analysts say, is the shaky outlook for the global economy and in particular the airline industry, which is prey to fluctuations in oil prices and currencies as well as demand. Even the Gulf carriers are not immune to these risks.
IATA predicts the world's airline industry will make a combined net profit of $4.1 billion this year, less than half the $8.4 billion achieved in 2011. It expects profits will rise next year to $7.5 billion, but with the industry's profit margin staying razor-thin at 1.1 percent in 2013 versus an expected 0.6 percent in 2012.
In this environment, teaming up to cut costs makes sense even for deep-pocketed Gulf airlines, which are not listed on stock markets and so do not disclose their profit margins.
"The logic for joining alliances is that it gives your network more reach. Qantas and Emirates are in an alliance as they see logic in using each others' network. So it makes sense for both," said Tyler, adding that he believed more such deals were imminent in the industry.
Another motive may be that Gulf carriers now see cooperation with other countries' airlines as politically more helpful to their growth than a confrontational approach.
Emirates, Etihad and Qatar Airways are rapidly adding routes around the world. Meanwhile, weak economies have driven asset prices down to levels where acquisitions look attractive; Etihad has taken stakes in Air Berlin (AB1.DE), Aer Lingus AERL.I, Virgin Australia and Air Seychelles in the space of a few months. Qatar Airways has bought part of cargo carrier Cargolux.
But the Gulf airlines need the goodwill of national governments in other regions to secure new routes and have their acquisition plans approved. As these regions struggle economically, it is to the advantage of Gulf carriers to present themselves as allies of local airlines.
The Gulf airlines have been forced to defend themselves against claims of unfair competition by their European rivals, which have raised questions about state funding and alleged fuel subsidies. Entering alliances could help to insulate them against such attacks.
And the current strength of the Gulf airlines compared to other carriers puts them in a good position to negotiate the terms of their entry into the alliances.
"I guess necessity is the mother of invention here...The advantage the three gulf carriers have is they have network, a quality product and funding. They make attractive dance partners," said Peter Morris, chief economist at aviation consultancy Ascend. (Editing by Andrew Torchia)