For more than a decade, Persian Gulf carriers have collectively helped shape the long-range airliner product development strategy for both Airbus and Boeing and the world's high-capacity air transport markets. With the advent of the Boeing 777X and possible Airbus A350, and A380 upgrades, their influence looks like it will only grow.

The impact of airlines such as Emirates, Etihad and Qatar Airways on performance requirements has therefore evolved into something considerably greater than the sum of their parts. As a result, even though the airlines of the region in themselves represent a sizeable chunk of both the Airbus and Boeing market forecasts, their influence extends out of all proportion around the globe. Having placed themselves at the nexus of an ever-growing network of interconnecting global routes, they have driven airframe and engine manufacturers to reach new levels of range and payload capability.

Because of the geographic location of their hubs, the Middle Eastern carriers require more range than most others. A flight to New York is not an eight-hr. mission like it would be for Lufthansa or Air France, but can be a trip in excess of 14 hr. against winter headwinds. Trips to the U.S. West Coast can reach 17 hr., much like flights to Latin American destinations, which are increasingly linked to Middle East networks. Carriers claim they can connect any two markets on the globe with only one stop somewhere in the Persian Gulf region, and they need aircraft with long legs to keep that promise.

But Airbus and Boeing risk having to produce aircraft that are designed only for a part of the market, with European, U.S. and Asian airlines having to deal with heavier and more capable aircraft than they require. And the manufacturers have to avoid at all costs developing more slow-sellers like the Boeing 777-200LR or the Airbus A340-500. The second life of the A330 can partially be explained by the fact that the aircraft is all many airlines need as far as range is concerned. Lufthansa and Air France are flying the aircraft to the U.S. West Coast and Latin America. And the recently launched Boeing 787-10 is targeting that—arguably large—segment as well.

In particular, Emirates and Qatar Airways are not only influential in terms of aircraft design because of their large orderbooks. They are also run by charismatic executives—Tim Clark and Akbar Al Baker—who have been very public about their aircraft requirements. That is unusual in an industry that is used to confidential, behind-the-scenes conversations. Etihad's James Hogan is not publicly challenging the manufacturers to the same extent as his colleagues.

In spite of Qatar's and Etihad's efforts to catch up, Emirates still has by far the largest orderbook. The airline has outstanding orders for 70 A350-1000s, 53 A380s and 61 Boeing 777-300ERs. Emirates is also widely expected to sign up for at least 100 Boeing 777Xs at this month's Dubai Airshow.

Etihad's order backlog is relatively small by Persian Gulf carrier standards. It comprises seven A320s and A321s each, two A330-200s, one A330F, 12 A350-1000s, 10 A380s, 41 Boeing 787-9s and one 777-300ER. However, Etihad is also seen as another candidate for a huge 777X order.

Late last month, Qatar's Al Baker indicated that the carrier might order the 777X for the first time, but cautioned that would happen only if the time were right. He nevertheless confirmed that Qatar will place an aircraft order at the Dubai Airshow. Al Baker also hinted that the airline would be interested in a further A350 stretch if it meets its payload/range requirements.

Qatar is the only of the three big Persian Gulf carriers that has large outstanding orders for narrowbodies. The airline is awaiting delivery of 31 A320s (among them, the first A320neo) and 20 A321s. But Qatar will also receive 43 A350-900s, 37 -1000s, 10 A380s and 22 more Boeing 787-8s, plus five 777-300ERs and three 777Fs.

Nowhere is the importance of the Persian Gulf carriers more visible than in the Airbus A380 program. The three airlines alone account for almost exactly half of the official order backlog (73 of 148 aircraft). If all of the 23 aircraft that are unlikely to ever be delivered (to Kingfisher Airlines, Hong Kong Airlines, Air Austral and Virgin Atlantic) are taken off the official list, it becomes even more obvious that the A380 program would be in even deeper trouble without the three Middle Eastern airlines.

Emirates, in particular, has been the single most important advocate of the aircraft, given that it is building its Dubai hub around the efficiencies and volumes the large jet provides. It is also the only carrier at this point that wants Airbus to go ahead with the A380-900 and stretch the aircraft further. While such a project would certainly only be considered for the period well beyond 2020, it now looks that Airbus will study upgrading and improving the existing -800 before considering an even larger aircraft.

Although it would be inaccurate to identify Emirates as the only driver behind the program—support for the launch of the original A380 had been broad inside Airbus in the late 1990s—the case illustrates that it can be dangerous to become infatuated with the requirements of one particular airline. Given sluggish demand for the type elsewhere, Airbus can only hope that Emirates finds a place for more of the aircraft. Clark wants to buy another 20 A380s if Dubai International Airport can accommodate them.

The A350-1000 is the most obvious example of Persian Gulf carriers' intervention in the design process. Emirates, notably, doubted that its engines were powerful enough and that the aircraft would have the required range. Along with Qatar Airways, the airline put significant pressure on Airbus. “Some say the A350-1000 needs to take on more thrust and weight, and I believe that to be the case,” Emirates' Clark said before the latest redesign. And Al Baker wanted “increased takeoff weight and increased range.”

The two got it their way. Airbus delayed the aircraft's entry into service to allow time for Rolls-Royce to raise engine thrust from 93,000 to 97,000 lb. The Persian Gulf carriers' appetite for larger aircraft has also been a factor in Airbus's notable lack of interest in building the -800, the smallest A350 version.

Since the 777X will be launched largely on the strength of Persian Gulf carriers' orders, industry sources point at their massive influence in the aircraft's design. This is most clear for the smaller -8X, which Boeing pitches as an aircraft roughly the size of the current 777-300ER, but with extreme range capabilities.

Boeing's 777 development strategy shows how requirements for a growing part of the long-haul aircraft market have changed. Originally designed primarily as a DC-10 replacement for domestic U.S. carriers, the big Boeing twin swiftly evolved into a long-range workhorse for the world's airlines before the influence of mainly Middle Eastern and Asian operators led to the dominance of the current 777-200LR/300ER long-range generation. This process is on the cusp of evolving to the next phase with the 777-8X/9X.

“They [Persian Gulf-based airlines] clearly had tremendous market success and we continue to work very closely with them as their business model continues to develop,” says John Wojick, Boeing's global sales senior vice president. “We see quite a lot of growth in the region in general, and they've shown themselves to be formidable competitors in the industry. They created a model that's all about long-haul capacity and connecting long-distance routes around the world through hubs—it certainly has our interest.”

But while some argue that pandering to the excessive range requirements of these and similar Asian-based carriers has led to limited success in the case of niche market products like the 777-200LR and A340-500, Wojick says the needs of the Middle East carriers simply form a bellwether for the rest of the world. “It's not a stand-alone phenomenon. The 787, for example, is a testament to our processes. When we looked around the world and saw what people want to do, we saw they wanted to get from Point A to Point B. So we developed the 787 for city pairs, and the Middle East carriers have capitalized on this desire. They've been able to connect city pairs that have never been connected before.”

“The 787 was designed around that philosophy, and now we have over 979 orders to date across a range of 220 seats all the way to 350 seats [the 787-10]. So we're looking at how we extend that with the 777, which today services the market with the -300ER and -200LR, and evolve it with the 8X/9X. Those are going to allow airlines to connect city pairs with an aircraft [777-9X] that burns over 20 percent less fuel [per seat], and has cash operating costs 15 percent lower relative to the -300ER, which has already largely obsoleted other aircraft,” Wojick explains.

The Middle East is the battleground where the fortunes of these new products could be largely won or lost. The competition with the smaller 350-seat A350-1000 forms the focus, with Boeing pushing further sales of the existing 777-300ER while refining the design performance of both the 777-8X and -9X to counter the challenge of the Airbus twin. Wojick refutes the Airbus claims that the A350-1000 is a “777 killer,” despite the fact that seven well-established 777-300ER operators (including British Airways and Japan Airlines) have ordered the A350-1000. “In terms of the 777-300ER, we've sold more of them in the time period that they've been offering A350-1000s, so the data would prove that's not the case. As for the future, when we look to 2020 and beyond, we know we can offer an aircraft that's better in terms of fuel burn and emissions.”

While Boeing strives to improve the range-payload performance of the 777X for the Persian Gulf carriers by reportedly increasing both maximum takeoff weight and engine power, the company is eager to show its overarching twin-aisle development strategy reflects the needs of the wider market. The 787-10, a double-stretch of the 787-8, will “capitalize on fuel efficiency,” states Wojick. “Instead of increasing thrust and range, we believe the airlines would rather have efficiency and a reduction in range. This is about 1,000 nautical miles but it still allows them to service more than 90 percent of the routes served by twins today. We give people a choice. We have the opportunity for them to buy an efficient 300-passenger 787-10, or the 300-passenger 777-8X that has adequate range and which can open up new missions. So by having two products within close proximity in terms of capacity, we can offer a choice of over and under 7,000 nautical miles.”

Current orders for the three major Persian Gulf carriers
Emirates Orders Deliveries
A350-900 50
A350-1000 20
A380 90 37
777-300ER 120 59
Etihad Airways
A320 11 4
A321 7
A330-200 14 12
A330-200F 4 3
A350-1000 12
A380 10
777-300ER 18 17
787-9 41
Qatar Airways
A320 62 31
A321 20 6
A350-900 43
A350-1000 37
A380 10
777-300ER 27 22
777F 8 5
787-8 30 8
Sources: Airbus and Boeing