Thursday, September 11, 2008

Qatar versus Etihad at JFK

In my last correspondence, I had mentioned that I will be putting together a detailed comparison as to how QR-Qatar Airways compares to EY-Etihad Airways from JFK from every possible angle.

What will be analyzed is their network connectivity via their respective hubs, their on board product in J & Y class, strength of frequent flier program, operational costs of flying to JFK, flight timings to/from JFK and strength/weaknesses in key market segments.

Please note that the below mentioned observations and opinions are of my own after conducting detailed research. Feel free to email me back with your comments, suggestions, compliments, criticisms etc as they will be welcomed :)

Strength of frequent flier program:

Both QR and EY have frequent flier programs which have a strong presence in their respective home markets but in the USA market, QR outshines EY. The reasons for this is that QR is part of both United Airline's and US Airways's frequent flier programs which have nearly half a million members in the U.S. alone combined. In addition, QR is also part of LH, BMI and VS's respective frequent flier programs thus giving it a huge edge. As far as its own QR Privilege Club program is concerned, major carriers such as LH/BD/UA/US are already part of it thus providing with a broad reach.

In comparison, EY's program only has Jet Airways, BMI and Oman Air as being part of it and the carrier isnt as yet features on any major U.S. carrier's frequent flier program as a partner carrier which it must fix asap.

The reason why I'm stressing the above mentioned point is because many passengers will pay a premium of up to $ 100 to fly a carrier that gives them frequent flier points on the frequent flier card that they currently use extensive particularly on long haul flights. A typical JFK-India-JFK flight earns you approximately 15,000 points so why would anyone want to enrol into a new FFP when he/she can just accumulate it on an already exisiting FFP of UA/US.

So in this department, QR wins hands down!

Cost of Operations:

To begin with, both airlines are flying to JFK nonstop from their respective hubs on a daily basis. EY uses a 4 engined, 240 seater, 3 class configured Airbus A 340-500 for this route where as QR uses a 335 seater 2 class configured Boeing 777-300ER.

Clearly the advantage goes to QR here because it is flying a more fuel efficient plane on this ultra long haul flight of 14 hours using 2 less engines with a greater on board passenger + belly cargo capacity which overall brings its direct operational costs down. In this day and age with fuel prices soaring, the A 345 is viewed as a gas guzzler compared to a B 773ER on long haul missions. This is why you see fewer airlines using this aircraft with the best examples being Air Canada and Thai Airways selling their entire fleet of A 345s.

By QR flying an aircraft that has nearly 100 seats more than EY plus an extra 3 tonnes of cargo carrying capability in its belly per flight , its unit cost per seat is lower than EY thus allowing it the ability to offer cheaper fares to its passengers. The only advantage that EY has in terms of operation costs at JFK versus QR is the fact that its landing & ground handling fees would be less as its aircraft is at JFK for 4 hours only where as QR's is for 8 hours thus the latter incurring higher parking + gate fees especially. QR's arrival time into JFK (3pm) too is at "peak time" thus commanding a small premium.

However, when you're looking at the overall picture of direct operational costs of flying an A 345 AUH-JFK nonstop versus a B 773ER DOH-JFK, the advantage overall goes to QR here.

In-flight premium class (F & J) product :

EY's in flight product on board their A 345 in the premium cabins is exemplary. In first class, the seat reclines into a full flat bed measuring 6 feet 8 inches and the seat pitch is approximately 90 inches. In J class, the seat pitch is 88 inches and reclines into a full flat bed measuring 6 foot 4 inches.

In comparison, QR doesnt offer a first class cabin product on their JFK flights nor does it to IAD and IAH. With regards to QR's J class on board their B 773ERs, it has a seat that currently doesnt recline into a full flat bed (presently, it reclines 165 degrees but will become a flat bed in 6 months time), has a pitch of 61 inches and a width of 20 inches.

As far as the on board video/audio entertainment systems are concerned, they are evenly matched between the two carriers.

Therefore taking into account all the points mentioned above, EY definitely seems to have the edge over QR in business and first class out of JFK due to its superior "seat product" in these 2 cabin classes.

EY wins this category!

Connections via DOH/AUH to GCC :

In this market segment, we shall be looking at how QR & EY connect passengers via their respective hubs to DXB, AUH, BAH, KWI, DOH & MCT as these places form the core of the GCC. To KWI, BAH & MCT, both carriers offer convenient 1-2 hour connections via their respective hubs to these 3 cities in both directions so they are evenly matched here.

To Dubai though, it is an entirely different scenario. In order to fly EY to DXB via AUH, a passenger goes through immigration and customs at AUH airport (30-45 minutes process) and then takes an approximate 2 hour bus ride from AUH to DXB which according to many is cumbersome and hassle some. With AUH and DXB's traffic problems worsening day by day, many passengers bound for DXB prefer to fly directly into DXB rather than take this option.

However, on the other hand if you fly QR from JFK to DXB via DOH, your transit time in DOH is 50 minutes and the DOH-DXB flight is 55 minutes in length so in retrospect it is not only more faster flying QR from JFK to DXB via DOH than it is on EY via AUH but also more hassle free.

Therefore, largely due to a huge advantage that QR has to the biggest GCC market i.e. DXB, it wins this category.

In-flight economy class product:

In economy class, both QR and EY offer a comfortable 33 inch seat pitch and a similar audio/video entertainment system. But the main difference in this cabin class which favours QR is the seat width.

QR's Y class seat width on board their A 346s and B 773ERs is 19 inches where as the industry standard is 17.5 inches. EY's Y class seat width is 18 inches and the extra inch of width space per seat is a lot to desire especially on these ultra long haul flights.

When looking at QR's seat width's measurement, I came across a shocking revelation which is that Emirates's business class seat width on board their A 332s, A 343s and A 345s is only 18 inches i.e. one inch less in seat width than QR's economy class seat width! Can you believe that?

Therefore, when it comes to the economy class product, QR seems to win this category albeit in a marginal manner.

Connections via DOH/AUH to Pakistan :

The main market from JFK to Pakistan is bound for LHE and KHI. Over a million immigrant and second generation Pakistanis now reside in USA and a lot of them fly once a year at least to the homeland to visit family where as some travel often for business. To LHE, Etihad Airways offers connections on all its daily flights via AUH to LHE & ISB in both directions where as Qatar Airways doesnt. However, only 3 times a week does EY's JFK-LHE-JFK flights connect within a 2 hour transit at AUH where as on other days the transit in AUH is more than 7 hours.On the other hand, QR offers convenient flights to LHE and ISB 4 times a week from JFK via DOH with the transit being under 3 hours in each direction. QR also offers a superior in-flight product to LHE and ISB compared to EY because it uses its A 330s on all its DOH-NP flights which have tvs in every seat. In comparison, EY flies A 320s on a majority of its AUH-LHE/ISB flights which doesnt have a tv in every seat and the business class on board is sub-par.
To KHI, both EY and QR offer excellent connections via their hubs from/to JFK. But in this market segment, EY clearly has a huge edge over QR as not only does it offer more flights per week (10 compared to 7) but the transit time at AUH is only 90 minutes in each direction where if you fly QR from JFK to KHI, a transit of 5 hours is involved at Doha airport which isnt a pleasant experience!So largely due to its overwhelming schedule advantage to KHI, EY wins this category.To Pakistan, advantage Etihad !

Connections via DOH/AUH to India :

With regards to India on the whole, QR wins this round against EY easily because it has a wider presence in the country by flying more flights to more cities than EY mainly due to the fact that it is an older carrier with more bilateral rights! To India, EY flies only to BOM, DEL, MAA, CCJ, COK & TRV and is lobbying hard for new flights to BLR, HYD, AMD and ATQ. Apart from the cities that EY currently fly to in India, QR also flies to NAG, AMD and HYD.Lets start with the 2 main markets i.e. BOM & DEL. To the latter, both carriers offer excellent connections via their hubs on the outbound sector where as on the inbound sector, EY has a big edge in the "winter fog season" only. In the IATA winter season, in order to avoid having its planes grounded in Delhi, many airlines such as QR reschedule their flights hence during this season, DEL does not return with IAD nor JFK in the return direction. EY though offers good connections of approximately 2 hours via its AUH hub year round to/from DEL.

With regards to BOM, the advantage goes to QR because it flies 5 weekly B 773ERs + 2 weekly A 333s thus offering more capacity than EY to the city. Its flights connect within 3 hours on the outbound sector and 90 minutes on the inbound.

As for the Kerala markets of TRV, COK, and CCJ where both carriers compete for market share from the Gulf region, unfortunately for EY from JFK it cannot compete as none of its JFK flights connect in either direction to these cities thus giving QR a huge edge here. QR also has the edge when it comes to serving "niche markets" in India such as NAG and AMD as the Gujrati community in New York/Newark area numbers approximately 200,000 alone and they will pay a small premium to fly AI, QR and EK directly to AMD rather than having to endure a transit at BOM or DEL airports. To MAA, both carriers offer daily flights with convenient transit times at their respective hubs in both directions but QR has a small edge as it flies a larger A 321 on a daily basis from DOH to MAA where as EY uses a smaller A 320 for the daily AUH-MAA flight.

From JFK too, I expect QR to significantly hurt the market share and flight loads of Jet Airways-9W particularly to COK, TRV, CCJ, HYD and AMD as these passengers will not want to fly via BOM/DEL/MAA to their final destination under any circumstances unless they plan on visiting friends/family in BOM/DEL/MAA. Concluding, when it comes to India, EY only has an edge with the JFK-DEL market segment where as QR dominates South India and has an edge with BOM.

Overall winner for JFK-India is QR!

Connections via AUH/DOH to Dhaka and Colombo :

There is literally no competition here as EY's AUH-JFK-AUH flights do not connect conveniently with any AUH-DAC-AUH flight in either direction where as QR from JFK offers a convenient option 5 times a week via DOH (with a 3 hour transit) to DAC and on the return sector, the transit at DOH is 8 hours and offered twice a week only.

With regards to CMB, EY suspended flights in 2006 hence no competition for QR here.

To CMB and DAC, the clear cut advantage lies with QR.

Connections via AUH/DOH to Kathmandu, Nepal :

For the JFK-KTM-JFK market segment, EY dominates as its flights offer convenient connections 4 times a week via AUH in both directions where as QR offer none what so ever. The reason for that is the transit time in DOH exceeds 8 hours which is too cumbersome for anyone to endure.

Therefore, to KTM, EY is the winner hands down.

Connections via DOH/AUH to Far East (BKK/SIN/KUL/CGK/DPS):

When you look at the geographical location of the GCC region, one can make out that it will take as much time flying QR or EY to BKK/SIN/KUL/CGK from JFK via DOH/AUH as it would a European/UK carrier. The far east has always been a hot spot for rich and budget conscious Americans eager to vacation in style for an affordable cost. Therefore, in order to take advantage of its geographical location, both EY and QR need to aggressively promote these 4 above mentioned far east destinations that they serve from JFK via their respective hubs to help improve their flight loads to/from JFK.

To BKK, both EY and QR fly nonstop on a double daily basis with EY winning this segment by offering flights in both directions with only a 2 hour transit in AUH where as QR's BKK-DOH flight misconnect with JFK. FYI, the fastest way to fly to BKK from JFK is by CX, EY and QR where as from BKK to JFK, the fastest way to fly is on EY and CX.

However, where QR fails here, it makes up for by connecting JFK very nicely in both directions via DOH with SIN/DPS/KUL and CGK which EY fails to do with the exception of SIN.

By making these 4 Asian cities connect with JFK, it allows QR the marketing opportunity to diversify their passenger profile base on board their JFK and IAD bound flights. This allows them not to be mainly dependant on the South Asian and GCC traffic filling up their DOH-JFK flights. By having the "Asian Tiger Economy cities" connecting nicely in both directions with their JFK flights via DOH, they need to take advantage of this by aggressively promoting their flights to these Asian cities in the local markets of NYC and WAS such as providing all inclusive holiday packages, special business/economy class nets etc.

Therefore to overall to the Far East from JFK, its advantage Qatar Airways from JFK.

Connections via DXB / AUH to Iran :

There is a huge Iranian diaspora residing along the U.S. East Coast especially in NYC, Michigan and Washington DC. Both QR and EY fly to IKA but only QR flies to MHD-Mashad.

QR flies daily to IKA-Tehran and its flights from/to JFK connect in both directions conveniently via DOH. From JFK to IKA, the transit for QR passengers in DOH is 5 hours and on the return sector its 2 hours only. To MHD, it flies twice a week only but flights dont connect with JFK.

On the other hand, EY's flights from/to JFK only connect twice a week with their AUH-IKA flights but with longer transit times. The transit times in both directions at AUH is 6 hours which is a bit inconvenient

By having better connection times to IKA as well as flights to MHD, this market segment favors QR over EY.

Hub Planning and Network support at DOH/AUH:

The business models of both QR and EY are "hub and spoke" as is of EK/KU/GF. These GCC carriers rely on nearly 80% on regional transit traffic feeding their long haul flights to Europe, Africa and USA.

With regards to the hub planning of EY and QR, there are some stark contrasts and big drawbacks that one finds especially in the way in which the EY Route Network Planning and Flight Scheduling is done with regards to their future USA expansion strategy. The main reasons why I say this are as follows:

EY's flights to/from JFK rely heavily on feeder traffic obtained from India and Pakistan and will continue to do so for a very long time. The same can be said for future USA destinations that they may think of launching such as IAH, IAD and ORD. But for EY to fly to any city further than the distance of JFK and IAD such as ORD or IAH, it cannot support these flights with feeder traffic (due to misconnections) obtained from KHI/LHE/ISB/BOM/DEL/BKK because the way in which their "hub wave bank" is set up at AUH-Abu Dhabi.
Between 9-1030am AUH time, all of EY's AUH-ISB/LHE/KHI/BOM/DEL/BKK depart therefore if a future AUH-ORD-AUH route is launched, the aircraft must return to AUH by 745am in order to have a minimum transit time of allowing its passengers to connect easily + baggage transfer. This is not possible because a new AUH-ORD-AUH flight would be timed as follows:

EY XXX Dep AUH 0200 Arr ORD 0830
EY XXX Dep ORD 1030 Arr JFK 0915+1

With such a schedule in place, only BOM & DEL would connect where as BKK/LHE/ISB/KHI wont. The BOM and DEL flights too have a transit of 1 hour 5 minutes only in AUH which even though is a legal connection as the minimum transit time is 1 hour, its still cutting it too close especially in the winter season when snow storms and blizzards cause massive delays to ORD flights.

If AUH-IAH is launched in the future and EY doesnt create a proper second hub wave bank at AUH, it gets even worse as the flight timings would look like this:

EY XXX Dep AUH 0200 Arr IAH 0930
EY XXX Dep IAH 1130 Arr AUH 1215+1

With the flight timings mentioned above, onward flights to BOM/DEL dont connect and LHE/ISB/KHI only connect 3 times a week.

On the other hand, Qatar Airways has structured its main "night time hub wave bank" at DOH in such a manner that all future planned flights to IAH and ORD connect to their entire Indian subcontinent, GCC, THR and Far East network (DPS/CGK/SIN/KUL). For example, their new DOH-ORD-DOH flight would look like this if launched:

QR XXX Dep DOH 0830 Arr ORD 1620
QR XXX Dep ORD 2020 Arr DOH 1915+1

*Above mentioned flight timings are similar to DOH-JFK and DOH-IAD and one can see that through my analysis given for each market, my proposed flight timings for DOH-ORD-DOH connects very well with all the main feeder markets. Not only that but the departure timings from all its USA gateway points is at a convenient time in the evening where as EY's is early in the morning which is very inconvenient for O&D passengers especially as they have to arrive to the airport 3 hours before departure due to stringent security checks etc.

Also by having an early morning departure like EY has out of JFK and will most likely have out of ORD and IAD in the future, it negates the possibility of obtaining lucrative feeder traffic supplied by the U.S. domestic carriers as flights from Texas, Arizona, ORD and Flordia dont arrive into JFK/IAD early in the morning.

Therefore, one can see that clearly from a hub planning and overall network support perspective, QR has a big edge over EY!

Here are the summarized results on who has an edge in a particular sector :

To the GCC : QR
Pakistan : EY
India : QR
Far East Asia : QR
Iran : QR
Costs of operation : QR
In-flight economy class product : QRIn-flight premium class product : EY
Frequent Flier program : QR
Future expansion and hub wave planning : QR

So the end result is Qatar Airways beats Etihad Airways in 9 out 12 categories!

Concluding, it does seem that QR has a major edge over EY from JFK but EY isn't going to lie low. Over the past two years, their brand marketing and excellent in-flight product in the premium cabins has won them the respect and admiration of many passengers and their fellow competitiors. They have large cash reserves with ambitious plans to expand globally and be a serious contender to QR within a decade.

What they really need to fix in USA initially is their early morning departures from 10am-11am to 1pm-2pm which means creating an effective "afternoon hub wave bank" at AUH thus allowing a convenient departure time from ORD/IAD/JFK which is much better than 10-11am! They already have night time departures from LHR/MAN/GVA/CDG/FRA/BRU! They also need to get into the frequent flier program of one of the major U.S. carriers such as DL/UA or AA and vice versa (get one of them on board theirs).

I feel that the main advantages of QR that I've detailed in this email are the higher opportunities of obtaining feeder traffic from all over the U.S. due to its convenient arrival/departure timings to/from JFK + UAL codeshare on many domestic route + its ability to connect all GCC, few Far East and Indian subcontinent destinations via DOH in both directions + better frequent flier program and lastly lower costs of operations by using their B 773ERs compared to EY using their A 345s. These advantages will be the main saviors of the QR for the long term in USA versus EY.

I hope that all of you who have read this email enjoyed it, please feel free to write back with your feedback, comments etc as it shall be appreciated and replied back to asap.