Featured image: Simone Chellini/Airways

Twin Aisle in the Middle East: An Overlooked Success

DALLAS — The Middle East is widely considered the center of modern aviation. Several countries have invested enormous sums in airport infrastructure, airlines, and fleets in recent decades. Emirates (EK), Qatar Airways (QR), Saudia (SV), and Etihad Airways (EY) are some of the most famous names in the area.

To put the geopolitical power of the Middle East in perspective, it is estimated that the UAE welcomed over 13 times its population in air traffic passengers. Despite hosting the world’s largest airlines, the United States, on the other hand, handled little less than three times its population. Initially, national subsidies provided the foundations for giant airlines and airports to start operations. 

Today, most airline business models in the region are profitable even though aviation fuel still accounts for over one-third of the operating costs. Some of these carriers remain the most recognizable worldwide and are often identified with their Superjumbos. But what role did large-scale airliners play in unlocking aviation in the Middle East?

The 2023 Dubai Airshow lineup. Photo: Simone Chellini/Airways
The 2023 Dubai Airshow lineup. Photo: Simone Chellini/Airways

The Twin-Aisle Phenomenon

Recent studies have highlighted that most aircraft worldwide are not used to their optimal. Airlines require flexibility; therefore, an A320 may be used on missions between 30 minutes and 6 hours long, depending on the demand, destination, and time of the year. 

The same applies to twin-aisle aircraft, where their long (or sometimes ultra-long) range may not be a desirable requirement in some cases, at least not as much as capacity.

While most airlines worldwide operate their A350s or Boeing 777s on flights up to 16 hours long, the number of medium-haul flights operated by twin-aisle aircraft in the region remains high. Some flights to Europe are short enough that narrow-bodies can safely be operated. 

Routes such as Dubai (DXB) to Pisa (PSA) or Rome Fiumicino (FCO) to Abu Dhabi (AUH) are, among others, served by Boeing 737s and A321s. However, the bulk of air traffic from/to Europe is carried by twin-aisle aircraft or superjumbos. These 350+ seaters are often used on flights shorter than 7 hours, half of their range, connecting global hubs to airlines’ hubs. 

Similarly to KLM (KL) in the Netherlands, airlines in the Middle East have mastered the art of single-hub connections. This means relatively short flights, high investments in the layover experience, and a network based on the East-to-West connection.

Thanks to its location, countries like Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and QR may connect two sides of the globe with relatively short flight times, adding only one layover. Some airlines in the region even serve all continents, including South America, with non-stop flights, allowing travelers to go virtually anywhere in the world with only two flights. The chances that both flights will be in a twin-aisle aircraft are higher than anywhere else.

A6-EVQ - Emirates - Airbus A380-800 (A388) - SFO KSFO. Photo: Rohan Ramalingam/Airways

Tailor-made Aircraft 

Simply put, the Middle East is the biggest customer for the world’s largest aircraft. Its combined airline force accounts for the most orders for the A380 and the new Boeing 777X. One may even wonder if some programs would have occurred without the region’s commitment to large-scale airliners. 

In recent news, EK consolidated its Boeing 777-8 and 777-9 orders, flydubai (FZ) added the Boeing 787-9, and an entirely new airline, Riyadh Air (RX), was founded, beginning with a commitment to long-haul airliners first. And all of this happened in just a few months in 2023.

The only giant that has yet to take off in the MEA, due to the relatively new age of the airlines in the region and the relatively old design concept, is the Boeing 747. Some modern carriers in the Middle East flew the type just before the air traffic boom in the region, but it has yet to hold the recognition that, for instance, the EK A380 has achieved.

The iconic First Class cabin on board the Emirates A380. The cabin was showcased at the 2023 edition of the Dubai Airshow. Photo: Lorenzo Giacobbo/Airways
The iconic First Class cabin on board the Emirates A380. The cabin was showcased at the 2023 edition of the Dubai Airshow. Photo: Lorenzo Giacobbo/Airways

A Matter of Identity

Most airlines in the region have built a successful reputation thanks to their long-haul fleet. Whether these are used during sports events like F1 for advertising purposes or sponsoring international events, the Middle East exhibits a strong brand identity linked to its carriers.

The ultra-luxurious products on board Oman Air (WY), EY, or Gulf Air (GF) Dreamliners are amongst the best in the world and have redefined the travel experience in the past decades—not to mention EK First Class and bar, QR lounges, etc. In that sense, the in-flight experience has been drastically reshaped by what the airlines in the region offer on board their long-haul airliners. 

As airlines expand their fleets and workforce, new airports and facilities are built, the region's geopolitical power keeps increasing, with little to no competition worldwide, carrying passengers internationally.

Countries like India are set to offer strong competition numbers-wise, albeit domestically. Turkey offers renewed competition through its new Istanbul (IST) hub and a huge Airbus order. However, due to its geography, connectivity to Oceania is quite difficult, limiting the most developed network in the world.

Boeing Commercial Airplanes and CEO Stanley Deal, GE’s Chairman and CEO Henry Lawrence Culp, Jr., the Dubai Civil Aviation Authority President, CEO and founder of the Emirates Group, and chairman of Dubai World and flydubai, His Highness Sheikh Ahmed bin Saeed Al Maktoum signing the Emirates order for additional Boeing widebodies under the eye of the crown prince of Dubai, His Highness Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum. Photo: Simone Chellini/Airways
Boeing Commercial Airplanes and CEO Stanley Deal, GE’s Chairman and CEO Henry Lawrence Culp, Jr., the Dubai Civil Aviation Authority President, CEO and founder of the Emirates Group, and chairman of Dubai World and flydubai, His Highness Sheikh Ahmed bin Saeed Al Maktoum signing the Emirates order for additional Boeing widebodies under the eye of the crown prince of Dubai, His Highness Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum. Photo: Simone Chellini/Airways

More Capacity, More Long Haul?

Yes and no. Hundreds of new narrowbodies will join Qatar Airways, Emirates, Saudia, Riyadh Air, and flydubai in the next few years. Most of the new twin-aisle aircraft will be used on flights shorter than 7 hours, allowing the airlines’s connecting business model. The capacity will inevitably increase, but will the network follow the same trend? 

Due to the higher fuel efficiency, airlines may be able to open new routes to destinations in the US or South America, taking advantage of the long-haul capabilities of the new aircraft. However, the demand needs to meet specific requirements. Most airlines in the region have signed important codeshare agreements or are part of global alliances.

Some of the longest flights in the world are carried out in code-sharing or have airline hubs as the final destination. Thanks to their hub business model, MEA airlines will likely be able to open new ULR routes, not the destination airlines.

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