Qatar Airways reveals curious list of future routes for 2017 and 2018

Gulf carrier Qatar Airways has revealed eight further destinations that will be added to its route network over the next two years, bringing its planned expansion to 15 new markets for the 2017 and 2018 period. These include confirmation of planned flights to Las Vegas, host of next year’s Routes Americas air service development forum, an expected move into the Dublin market, which is already served by both Emirates Airline and Etihad Airways, and a rather surprising decision to become only the second international operator in the Canberra market.

The announcement from Qatar Airways does not include proposed start dates, frequencies, routings, equipment deployment etc but spans the 2017 and 2018 calendar years. The eight ‘new’ markets comprise Canberra, the airline’s fifth destination in Australia; Dublin, Ireland; Las Vegas, the airline’s eleventh destination in the United States; Rio de Janeiro, Brazil; Santiago, Chile; Medan’s Kualanamu International Airport, the airline’s third destination in Indonesia; and Tabuk and Yanbu, its ninth and tenth destinations in Saudi Arabia.

These newly-announced destinations join the already-announced list of new destinations to start in 2017: Auckland, New Zealand will start February 5, 2017, and will be the world’s longest commercial flight; Sarajevo, Bosnia; Skopje, Macedonia; Libreville, Gabon; Nice, France; Chiang Mai, the airline’s fourth destination in Thailand; and Douala, Cameroon.

“With this network announcement, we will be able to connect more people to more places than any other Gulf airline, and we will ensure our passengers will delight in the journey,” said His Excellency Akbar Al Baker, chief executive officer, Qatar Airways Group.

“Qatar Airways offers the world the best network, the best on board experience and the best connecting experience at Hamad International Airport. Our intention is to ensure our passengers can choose Qatar Airways for all of their travel needs – whether they are flying on business, for pleasure, or a combination of both,” he added.

The airline has already opened 12 new destinations in 2016, with two more cities set to join the network in December. The new markets added this year are Atlanta, Boston and Los Angeles in the United States; Birmingham, UK; Helsinki, Finland; Pisa, its fourth destination in Italy; Yerevan, Armenia; Marrakech, its second destination in Morocco; Ras Al Khaimah, UAE; Windhoek, Namibia; and Sydney and Adelaide in Australia. Qatar Airways will begin service to Krabi, its third destination in Thailand, on December 6, 2016 and resumes services to the Seychelles from December 12, 2016.

The network growth is being driven by a fleet expansion programme that is seeing additional Airbus A350-900 widebodied jets joining the Qatar Airways fleet, as well as the first A350-1000s once type certification is granted for the larger variant of the aircraft.

The success of its rivals Emirates Airlines and Etihad Airways in the Dublin market has made the Irish capital city a likely destination for Qatar Airways, especially with the growing links between the airline and the oneworld alliance and the International Consolidated Airline Group (IAG), parent of Aer Lingus. Emirates actually highlights Dublin as one of its best performing new markets of recent years generating strong feed via the Gulf into markets across Asia and Australasia.

On the opposite side of the equation, the introduction of flights between its Hamad International Airport hub in Doha and Canberra, the capital of Australia, seems a strange move and may simply be a lobbying tool to help influence the Australian regulator to enable more access into the likes of Melbourne and Sydney, where bilateral constraints currently limit access.

In fact media reports in Australia suggest that the Qatar Airways has not even held any formal talks with the Australian Capital Territory government. "This has been a bit of a surprise for the ACT Government," said acting chief minister Yvette Berry. "We're very keen to have conversations with Qatar Airways, if that's part of their proposal."

If this route comes to fruition it is likely that Qatar Airways will serve the destination via another point across Asia in order to minimise risk. It will be one of only two international carriers to serve the Canberra market with direct long-haul flights, adding to the ‘Capital Express’ Singapore – Canberra – Wellington route introduced by Singapore Airlines this past September.

The confirmation of planned flights to Las Vegas could see Qatar Airways become the first of the Gulf hub carriers to serve the popular business and leisure destination and confirms speculation from earlier this year when Akbar Al Baker publicly announced a desire to add flights to Sin City.

It is thought that Qatar Airways will be targeting the sizeable O&D flows between destinations across Asia, Africa and the Middle East to and from Las Vegas each year. Around 340,000 annual passengers flew between the Far East and Las Vegas last year, according to Sabre Market Intelligence data with a market of around 125,000 from Australia. There are sizeable flows of over 80,000 annual passengers to/from both southeast and central Asia, around 55,000 to/from the Middle East, 35,000 to/from Africa and approximately 19,000 to/from the Gulf.

Although yields are historically not strong in and out of Las Vegas, Qatar Airways will aim to take advantage of the considerable MICE traffic in and out of the US city to sustainably support the strong leisure flows.

Another curious new destination for Qatar Airways is Rio de Janeiro and its announcement comes at a time that other carriers are reducing capacity into Brazil as it continues to recover from a severe and protracted recession. Etihad Airways has recently announced the suspension of its own flights into Sao Paulo from late March 2017.

While Brazil’s economy is emerging and political uncertainty has diminished, consumer and business confidence are rising and investment has strengthened, unemployment is projected to continue rising until 2017 and fiscal indicators are improving only slowly. Qatar Airways currently serves Sao Paulo in conjunction with flights into Buenos Aires, Argentina and it is almost certain that Rio de Janeiro will also be served in conjunction with another market in South America.

Among its other planned new markets, Qatar Airways is the first of the Gulf hub carriers to announce an intent to serve Santiago in Chile, a market that its oneworld partner British Airways will also serve from London from January 3, 2017, its longest route by flight time. Meanwhile, Medan, the capital of North Sumatra province of Indonesia, is significantly underserved from the west with only limited direct flights into Saudi Arabia and one-stop links via the likes of Jakarta and Kuala Lumpur.

Qatar Airways’ growth in Saudi Arabia will see it reinforce its position as the largest of the Gulf hub carriers into the Kingdom by number of destinations and also overtake Emirates as the largest of the airlines by capacity. It will be the first of three airlines to serve both Tabuk and Yanbu, although Turkish Airlines has been linking the latter to its global network since 2012.

Richard Maslen

Richard Maslen has travelled across the globe to report on developments in the aviation sector as airlines and airports have continued to evolve and…