MIAMI — Emirates’ announcement to serve Fort Lauderdale comes after a nearly 18-month hiatus since any of the major Middle Eastern carriers (Emirates, Etihad and Qatar Airways) has unveiled a new U.S. destination.
The previous major announcement took place in spring 2015 when Qatar Airways announced it was launching service to Atlanta, Boston and Los Angeles. This pattern is relatively consistent with the growth trends among all three carriers as each of them planned to slow capacity growth in 2016 following a blitz in ultra-long haul flying.
Emirates is also in the midst of undergoing a major transition – evidenced by its recruitment of ex-Malaysia Airlines CEO Christoph Mueller – in an attempt to revamp its strategy to leverage partnerships and adapt with emerging trends in the industry. A major cornerstone of that plan revolves around partnerships – which will now receive even greater attention in the U.S. following the dismissal of any distortion to the current “Open Skies” agreement between America and the Middle East.
In general, Emirates has been more conservative than its Middle Eastern peers when it comes to partnership agreements. oneworld member Qatar Airways will be entering into a joint venture with British Airways in 2017, while unaligned Etihad Airways has equity stakes in numerous flag carriers across the globe that provides them additional, “offline” access in bilaterally-constrained yet high-volume markets such as Germany and India.
In many ways, Emirates began its codeshare journey in the United States when it expanded upon an interline agreement with JetBlue, active since 2010, to a full-blown codeshare partnership in 2012. That same year, Emirates entered into a game-changing partnership with Qantas, providing the struggling Australian carrier additional leverage across Emirates’ European network while also permitting Emirates to grow its trans-Tasman network. In 2015, Emirates also entered into a new codeshare agreement with Alaska Airlines.
The Fort Lauderdale service will also allow Emirates to pull additional levers in Latin America that it was blocked by its decision to postpone its Panama City launch in early 2016. The route, which would have become Emirates’ longest flight by block time, was initially delayed due to start-up challenges with its Copa Airlines partnership (Copa is a narrow-body only carrier based at Panama City Tocumen airport, but with a vast network across the Americas and the Caribbean). However, Emirates decided to suspend the route before startup due to poor advanced bookings.
Fort Lauderdale, however, will be able to backfill for 1-stop connectivity to Latin America thanks to the JetBlue partnership. Although Copa’s network out of Panama City is far larger to Latin American markets over JetBlue at Fort Lauderdale (Copa offers approximately 106 average daily departures to markets in Latin America and the Caribbean, compared to JetBlue’s average of 26 daily flights) the value-add will still be very significant from Fort Lauderdale. Moreover, geographically-speaking, Fort Lauderdale is better-positioned to capture connecting traffic flows over Panama City.
Per the route filings, Emirates will arrive into Fort Lauderdale mid-morning from Dubai, and return back slightly after 8PM. The schedule is likely designed with multiple purposes: 1) to permit connections to Latin American markets, with outbound and inbound returns supported; 2) for operational reasons due to the hot temperatures in the Floridian summers to minimize weight restrictions; and 3) potentially creating an opportunity to operate a tag-on service from Fort Lauderdale to another destination, such as Mexico City or Bogota, government-permitting.
Per OAG, the inbound Emirates flight will be able to support connections to Port Au Prince, Nassau, Cancun, San Juan, Montego Bay, Kingston, Nassau, Lima, Quito, Mexico City and Barranquilla. Return outbound itineraries that Emirates will support from Fort Lauderdale will be Kingston, Montego Bay, Nassau, Cancun, Cartagena, Port of Spain, Port Au Prince, Punta Cana, San Juan, Bogota, Bridgetown, Providenciales, Nassau, Santa Clara, Bogota, Bridgetown, San Jose and Santo Domingo.
Aside from the Emirates launch to Fort Lauderdale, there are no alternative plans for either of the ME3, nor Turkish Airlines, to launch additional routes to the United States. Qatar Airways has been rumored to launch service to Las Vegas in January 2017, although plans have yet to materialize. Several large U.S. airports and metropolises remain unserved from any of the Gulf Carriers, namely Detroit, Newark, San Diego, Minneapolis/St. Paul, Phoenix, Austin, San Jose, CA and Denver.
Further growth is imminent, as evidenced by a large aircraft order placed by Qatar Airways last week. Qatar is the likeliest of the Big Three to grow, given its growing fleet, partnerships with oneworld and the rhetoric of the “Open Skies” debacle firmly a thing of the past.
Emirates will be ushering in a new era of growth in a more traditional way as its partnership strategy evolves, perhaps even exploiting any pardons granted to it by the U.S. Big Three to develop opportunities with American, United or even Delta. Of those, American is the likeliest, given the relatively loose structure among oneworld carriers, the existing partnerships that it has with Qatar and Etihad, and its vast Latin American network.
Etihad is more conservative with regards to its growth strategy given its investments in offline carriers, and its own enhancements to provide an elevated premium experience on board its flights. Etihad will grow its U.S. capacity slightly in early 2017 when it grows its Dallas/Ft. Worth frequencies from 3 to 7 weekly flights.
Finally, Turkish will be the most interesting to watch given the volatility in its home country, which has softened demand somewhat, but coupled against a relatively resilient economic rebound and the impending move to a new global gateway airport in Istanbul, change may be more radical than perceived.
Regardless, Emirates will be unpacking a course change over the next several years. If Fort Lauderdale is any indication of that evolution, then surely more will come.