Rise of the Emirates as an Airline Traffic Hub

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Lisa Mullins: Long-haul flights, including from the US to China, usually include a stopover someplace. If you're traveling to Asia from Europe that stopover is often at a hub such as Bangkok or Singapore, but those cities are losing some of their stopover business to the Middle East. Here's a fresh example. Australian airline Qantas has just made a major announcement. It's ending it's seventeen-year long relationship with British Airways and taking the plunge Emirates Airline. That means that Qantas's so called "kangaroo route" from London to Sidney will now stop in Dubai instead of Singapore. Tom Hall is London Editor of the BBC-owned Lonely Planet travel guide. He says that the move by Qantas reflects a global change in how airlines make money.

Tom Hall: Qantas has been seen really for quite a few years now as being an end-destination carrier, and what I mean by that is an airline who people get on and they fly somewhere and that's the end of their journey. But increasingly the way that world airlines are developing, the real routes to profit is to be a hub carrier and what that really means is that you will bring people into your hub and you'll take them out again. So you're not just flying from A to B or indeed from B to C, but you're able to fly all the place — the hub and spoke model that will be very familiar to frequent flyers in the United States.

Mullins: OK. So how much does Dubai stand to gain? It sounds like a lot. And what does Singapore stand to lose?

Hall: What Dubai and indeed what Emirates stand to gain from it is more people passing through their airport, their city, maybe stopping over, maybe catching a connection flight somewhere else, and fewer people passing through Singapore and Bangkok and Hong Kong. That's essentially what we're talking about here.

Mullins: So how big a hit though is it for Singapore?

Hall: Singapore as a destination really is a very, very popular stopover place already. I don't think that alarms bells will be ringing for it as a city. What we're really seeing is a reflection that over the past five or ten years the game has changed when it comes to the global airline business. Asia is a fundamentally important destination, but the Middle East is increasingly taking more and more of that fly-through traffic, and there are benefits to them being able to do that. The Middle East, geographically, is very, very well situated for access to the Indian subcontinent and Africa and these are emerging markets which are becoming more and more important, and also can serve lots of different places in China. Probably one of the things that it's really being challenged on is it's status as that iconic classic stopover. When you're traveling from Australasia to Europe, onwards to North America, you're coming this way on a around-the-world ticket that's the challenge. And if Dubai starts to be seen as the center of the world when it comes to flying, and that's a title that's probably up for grabs a little bit at the moment, and then I think there's implications for carriers, for airlines, and for passengers all over the world.

Mullins: To what extent though do you think it will actually affect the American traveler, especially on long flights?

Hall: For the American traveler, what this means on the surface is more choice in terms of flying to Asia and points beyond. You will be able to fly either through the Middle East with increasing frequency, be able to fly through Southeast Asia with increasing frequency because certainly British Airways will need a new partner in Southeast Asia to help them with routes down to Australia, so it should mean more choice and a little bit of competition doesn't do any harm at all when it comes to airfares.

Mullins: But I also wonder if this means there are more people from the Middle East who are traveling and using Dubai's airports.

Hall: There are more people from the Middle East traveling, but the real growth in air travel though is coming from China, it's coming from India, its coming from Latin America, it's coming from Russia. And flights from all of these places, it's really starting to converge in the Middle East. That's what this is all about.

Mullins: Once more thing, Tom. Since you do so much traveling yourself, have you taken a flight from London to Singapore? And I wonder if you've taken a flight from London to Dubai, and if you had a hub that you had to go to which one you'd prefer?

Hall: I have flown through both Singapore and Dubai. Singapore regularly wins the best airport in the world award whenever you ask travelers and I would give that my vote. It has a swimming pool if you're in the right terminal and there is nothing better when you're in a short stopover than being able to have a swim to wake your legs up. So that's the winner for me.

Mullins: As long as they give you a nice towel afterward I guess, huh?

Hall: That's right.

Mullins: Thanks. Tom Hall, Travel Editor at the BBC-owned Lonely Planet traveler publisher. He has a travel blog as well, it's called "Tom Hall Travel", and he writes the "Ask Tom" page for The Guardian's travel section. Thanks, Tom.

Hall: Thank you.