The geographic center of gravity for worldwide air traffic continues to move inexorably eastwards; from somewhere in the mid-North Atlantic Ocean 40 years ago, it has now reached a point in east-central North Africa and is expected to have crossed the Red Sea (and be heading directly for the Gulf) by 2036, according to Airbus market strategy senior v-p Bob Lange.
Defined by numbers of arriving, connecting and departing passengers per city, and neatly illustrating the link between income and people’s propensity to travel, the observation is contained in the European manufacturer’s latest Global Market Forecast (GMF), which analyses airlines’ future aircraft requirements. The noted drift supports statistics that show airline seats offered to, from and within the Middle East have increased by more than four times since 1996, from fewer than 100 million seats/year to more than 520 million in 2016.
For Airbus, the Middle East region comprises the Gulf area and the Arab world, but excludes North African nations, which are covered in its consideration of the Africa market (although the manufacturer recognizes the cultural links).
In addition to seats, the region’s local carriers also have increased service frequency, albeit at a lower rate. According to Lange, seats offered by Middle East operators have grown by almost 150 percent since 1990 and numbers of flights by about 70 percent (neatly confirming the long-held Airbus contention that average aircraft size continues to increase).
Lange said that 40 percent of the world population lives within four hours flying time of the Middle East and some 87 percent (in countries that represent 64 percent of global GDP) within eight hours flight time. He cited predictions that over the next 20 years the region's economy will grow at 3.4 percent annually—"well above the world average"—with the local population increasing by around 100 million people to reach 450 million by 2036. Meanwhile, market drivers include growing private consumption that by 2026 will exceed 50 percent of Middle East GDP and 52 percent 10 years later.
An obvious characteristic of Middle East air-transport operations is the greater proportion of large aircraft in airline fleets, according to Airbus director of strategic marketing and analysis Andrew Gordon. Acknowledging that airports in the region feature “lots of connecting traffic” between Europe to the west and Asia to the east, he said that operations are essentially similar to services in other areas. “The location enables carriers to operate very efficiently.”
How is demand distributed across the region, and how is that expected to change? Airbus head of global market forecasting Fabrice Valentin pointed out that while the largest aircraft are seen at the major hubs, such as Dubai and Abu Dhabi (United Arab Emirates) and Doha (Qatar), a trend toward many smaller single-aisle machines is evident at secondary city airports.
With increasing intra-regional growth, he reported plentiful development, “including at smaller places like Oman, as tourism grows outside traditional markets.” An increasing consideration is that, as it matures, a young Middle East population will want to travel more to see the world.
Gordon noted the growing development of low-cost carriers (LCCs) in the region: "There are lots of places with high populations and a requirement for links to the Middle East." Noting that LCCs more than doubled their share of overall capacity (available seat-kilometers/miles) to some 26 percent during 2003-24, Lange characterized the LCC sector as “a global phenomenon.” He said that the number of seats offered by LCCs on Middle East domestic and intra-regional flights increased by 16.4 times to some 4 million between 2006 and last year.
Gordon cited tourism as a major driver for Middle East aviation markets, stimulated by an increasingly young population and the presence of the LCCs, whose standards are becoming much closer to those of much older and more established full-service operators.
From a current fleet of 1,249 passenger aircraft with 100+ seats and freighter aircraft above 10 metric tons, Gordon said that the Middle East will require a 3,322-strong fleet for service in 2036. With around 515 aircraft to be replaced, some 2,588 new units will be required for delivery in the coming 20 years, according to the GMF.
Specifically, Airbus put Middle East 20-year new-aircraft requirements at: 1,082 single-aisle aircraft, 1,078 twin-aisle and mid-size freighters, and 428 very-large passenger and cargo machines. Regarding their timing, Gordon said that the current fleet comprises aircraft with an average age of about nine years and the prospect of at least a further 20 years operational service.
Given the manufacturer’s recently acquired interest in the Bombardier C Series, Gordon conceded that in the future the GMF might need to introduce reference to slightly smaller aircraft. The related market survey is not restricted to the 100-seat lower threshold in numbers that Airbus publishes; rather, that is simply a reflection of the lowest-capacity aircraft it has offered until now.
Generating meaningful statistics for the GMF might appear to be a dark art, but it is the result of more than 20 years evolution. For each edition, Airbus looks at the market airline by airline and traffic flows on about 150 routes, considering the seat-count in each fleet and how individual markets and fleets have evolved. Account is taken of known aircraft-retirement and -replacement policies, as well as future fleet-planning philosophy, according to Gordon. The market for freighters is considered separately, but includes provision for passenger-aircraft belly cargo capacity.
Why are 20-year forecasts important and what is the value today of 2017 predictions made in 1998? "Our job is to reduce risk in a very long-term business," said Gordon. With aircraft being operated for 20 to 30 years, manufacturers need to take a view about future demand that will help operators make decisions.
Gordon claimed that analysis of past forecasts has found traffic predictions to be “pretty close,” while those for deliveries have been “not bad, given that they are forecasts.” Nevertheless, the Airbus director of strategic marketing and analysis concedes one misjudgement: “We underestimated the growth of low-cost operators in the late 1990s” and their impact on single-aisle deliveries. If LCCs continue to prosper, that center of gravity might arrive in the Gulf earlier than expected.