Photographer: Krisztian Bocsi/Bloomberg

Europe’s Fading Allure Forces Gulf Carriers to Rein In Expansion

  • Mideast ‘big three’ slow capacity gains to lowest in a decade
  • Chinese tour groups put off by spate of bombings and attacks

Gulf airlines will slow capacity growth on European routes to the lowest level in more than a decade as sputtering economies, an ailing oil industry and concerns about terrorism depress demand in one of the travel sector’s most hotly contested markets.

After seating capacity on European routes rose nearly six-fold over the past 12 years, growth from Dubai-based Emirates, Qatar Airways and Etihad Airways PJSC of Abu Dhabi will drop to 4.1 percent in the first quarter of 2017, according to figures compiled by travel-data provider Diio LLC. That’s the slowest expansion in the region since at least 2004, the year after Etihad was founded, according to Barclays airline analyst Oliver Sleath.

While the slowdown will come as a welcome reprieve for Air France, British Airways and Lufthansa, it highlights the glut of seats in Europe, where strains are only set to increase amid a rebound in oil prices and the weaker euro and pound. Net income at European airlines is set to tumble 25 percent next year as margins fall even further behind U.S. peers, according to the International Air Transport Association.

While a faltering economy, political uncertainties and less travel from Gulf oil executives have sapped demand, the biggest factor has been concern among Asian travelers about terrorist attacks, Emirates President Tim Clark said.

Chinese tour groups have largely ceased visiting Europe in the wake of bombings and shootings spanning France to Turkey, said Clark, who has led the world’s biggest long-haul carrier since 2003. A widely publicized axe attack in July on Hong Kong travelers in Wuerzburg, Germany, further darkened the region’s image and contributed to flows shifting to destinations such as Taiwan, Singapore, Australia and New Zealand, bypassing the carrier’s Dubai hub, he said.

“They travel en masse, 100, 200, 300,” Clark said in an interview in London. “When Ankara happened, when Paris happened, when Nice happened, they stopped. Not into a trickle -- they stopped entirely.”

Etihad, which has been seeking ways to shore up struggling European partners Air Berlin and Alitalia, will add just 1.5 percent more seats to Europe in the first quarter, declining from 6.1 percent in the same period in 2015, Sleath said. After increasing its stake in British Airways parent IAG SA this summer, Qatar Airways intends a 7.4 percent boost, down from 20.5 percent a year earlier. Qatar Air declined to comment on its European strategy beyond noting its plans to start daily flights to Dublin in June. Etihad didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

Meanwhile, Emirates will increase its European capacity 3.2 percent in the first quarter from 11.6 percent, according to Sleath. And Clark said the carrier is even considering capacity reductions on European routes to adjust to ebbing demand.

“With so much overcapacity, it’s tough for everybody,” he said.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.
LEARN MORE