Middle East Hubs: The Rise of Low Cost and the Importance of the Indian Subcontinent

With Qatar soon to host the FIFA World Cup, the big three Middle Eastern hubs, Doha, Dubai and Abu Dhabi, are all angling to take advantage of the anticipated traffic to the region.
But while sporting events attract attention with a short-term burst of new flights, what are the underlying trends, and has recovery from the pandemic brought about any substantial changes to the networks at these airports?

Dubai Leads Recovery

Doha, Dubai and Abu Dhabi, have all seen a fair recovery in comparison to their 2019 seat capacity.
Dubai, the largest airport of the three, has just edged out Doha to have the highest level of recovery of the three airports in September 2022, operating at 86% of 2019 capacity levels with 3.9 million seats; Doha is at 85% of 2019 capacity with 1.9 million seats, while Abu Dhabi has recovered to 77% of its September 2019 capacity, with a much more modest 0.9 million seats.

However, when it comes to the number of destinations served by their networks, all three airports have either reached their previous 2019 levels or surpassed them.
Doha was connected to 161 destinations in September 2022 vs 159 in September 2019, Dubai 222 destinations vs 223, and Abu Dhabi has fast-tracked its destinations from 86 in September 2019 to 105 in September 2022.

September 2022 seats operated vs September 2019

Seats Operated 

Sep 2019

Seats Operated

Sep 2022

Capacity Growth vs 2019
DOH 2,290,585 1,939,834 -15%
DXB 4,561,890 3,905,803 -14%
AUH 1,147,989 881,015 -23%

Source: OAG Analyser


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Low-Cost Carriers Increase Their Share at Dubai, Abu Dhabi

When we look at the split between low-cost carriers (LCCs) and mainline airlines, Doha has maintained its 95% mainline airline share in September 2022, whilst Dubai has seen LCCs gain share from 17% to 25% in September 2022, with notable increases from Flydubai (+27% vs 2019 capacity) and IndiGo (+6%). Whilst Abu Dhabi’s LCCs - with the launch of Air Arabia Abu Dhabi and Wizz Air Abu Dhabi in 2020 and 2021 - have experienced a much more significant gain, from 7% to 25%.

Big Three Airlines Recovering Capacity but Losing Share

Of course, we can’t look at these three main hubs without having a quick look at how the three dominant carriers, Qatar Airways, Emirates, and Etihad Airways, are recovering, with each airline commanding such a large share of total seats at each hub.

Qatar Airways is operating at 83% of its 2019 capacity from Doha, Emirates 75% of its 2019 capacity from Dubai and Etihad Airways at a lower 59% of its capacity from Abu Dhabi, thanks to its restructuring program which it had started even prior to the pandemic hitting.

At Dubai, Emirates’ share of total seats dropped from 67% in September 2019 to 58% in September 2022, whilst LCC Flydubai’s share grew from 11% to 17%. Etihad also saw a drop in total seat share from 84% in 2019 to 65% in 2022, losing ground to AirArabia Abu Dhabi and Wizz Air Abu Dhabi.

It’s clear that while the legacy carriers have built these hubs, largely on the back of long-haul international connectivity, they have paved the way for LCCs to now exploit a more established regional market.

In some instances they have a symbiotic relationship with the legacy airlines, providing feed traffic at a lower cost to long-haul flights and expanding the regional route network. Flydubai and Emirates are an example. For Wizz Air, the move into the Middle East is a logical way to grow, having expanded in Eastern Europe and needing new markets to grow.

South Asia Grows in Network Importance

Not all regions are made equal when it comes to regaining capacity - so which regions are driving growth for these Middle Eastern hubs?

The top three regions for seat capacity are the same in September 2022 as they were in September 2019 for all three hubs: the Middle East, South Asia and Western Europe - but in varying orders.

For Doha:
  • South Asia is the second biggest region for share of seat capacity (420k in September 2022), close to catching up with Western Europe’s 448k seats, and surpassing September 2019’s seat capacity by 4%.
  • India is the country with the largest volume of seat capacity for flights to Doha, as in 2019, but it has increased its share of total seats from 8% in September 2019 to 10% in September 2022, and has exceeded 2019 capacity by 3%. Pakistan now has 11% more capacity than in 2019.
For Dubai:
  • South Asia jumps from third place to first for share of seat capacity (965k seats and a 25% share), with 6% more seats than in September 2019, widening the gap vs Middle Eastern capacity (879k seats).
  • India has also grown its seat capacity share from Dubai from 12% in 2019 to 15% in 2022, and has fully recovered to 2019 levels, whilst elsewhere in the region, Pakistan has added 10% more capacity than in 2019.
  • This is no surprise when we look at Indian airlines operating at Dubai - those in the top 10 airlines have seen high recovery rates vs 2019 levels, with IndiGo at +6%, Air India +6%, Air India Express -2% and SpiceJet -2%.
For Abu Dhabi:
  • South Asia has climbed from second place for share of seat capacity in September 2019, to first place in September 2022 (294k seats and 33% share) with capacity now -2% of September 2019 levels, and again creating a significant gap between itself and Western Europe (189k seat capacity).
  • Not only has India seen a substantial recovery in seats to Abu Dhabi (-11% of 2019 capacity), but Pakistan has also bagged the second spot for the top countries seat capacity, replacing Saudi Arabia, with +15% growth vs 2019. The growth in Indian seat capacity to Abu Dhabi is being driven by LCCs, which has seen capacity grow by 44% vs 2019, and now accounts for 53% of flights to India, vs 33% in 2019.
  • Bangladesh has grown by a whopping 152% since 2019, also partly fuelled by the introduction of LCC routes operated by AirArabia Abu Dhabi.

Network Sweet Spots for Doha and Dubai

At Doha, network capacity on African routes has surged past 2019 levels, with Northern Africa now 99% above September 2019, Southern Africa at 33% above and Central/ Western Africa 253% above.

At Dubai too, African growth has been strong, but Eastern Africa and Northern Africa are both hovering at 5% below 2019 capacity.

Capacity to and from North America has seen a strong bounce back at Doha, with 57% more seats than in September 2019, particularly when compared to Dubai’s capacity which is -9%, and Abu Dhabi -28% of 2019 capacity. Latin America has doubled its seat capacity at Doha, +125%, in contrast to being one of the slower regions to recover for Dubai, -55%.

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Eastern/ Central Europe sees gains and losses at Middle East hubs

Eastern/ Central Europe has seen a mixed recovery. Abu Dhabi’s seat capacity to the region has surged by 197%, partly driven by Wizz Air and Wizz Air Abu Dhabi, while Dubai’s seat capacity to the region has now surpassed 2019 levels (+15%). In particular, the hub has seen a four-fold growth in LCC seat capacity operating to Russia vs 2019 levels as Dubai has become one of a reduced number of destinations that Russians can travel to. However, Eastern/ Central Europe is one of the struggling regions for Doha, and capacity is only 36% of where it was, second only to Northeast Asia in terms of slowest recoveries.

And, of course, Northeast Asia is for all three airports seeing a slow recovery against its 2019 level - but that could be set to slowly change, given the latest flurry of reopening easings in the region at the end of Q3 2022.

Seeing Beyond the World Cup

The World Cup will inevitably drive a high volume of traffic for a short period of time, causing airlines and airports to make adjustments to their schedules.

Qatar has already reopened its old airport, Doha International Airport in addition to Hamad International Airport, temporarily relocating certain low-cost airlines to accommodate the higher frequencies. Qatar Airways has shared that during the World Cup, it would become more of a “point-to-point operation” and is planning to cut back on its African routes to prioritise European and South American ones.

Beyond the World Cup, though, the past few years have sped up changes that were evident before 2019. The growth of LCCs and their market share grab from the legacy airlines combined with the strength of the market to the Indian subcontinent means that the Middle East is now a major low-cost market in its own right, and the geographical focus of the airline networks from the three major airports is shifting eastward to expanding opportunities.

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