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KAI RYSSDAL: Now’s maybe not the best time to schedule a vacation to the Middle East. Ramadan started yesterday, which means daily life there will be slow there for the next month or so. Still, places like Dubai are becoming increasingly popular destinations for Europeans. The region hasn’t really caught on with American travelers. But some airlines, already well-established elsewhere, would like to change that. And they’re sparing no expense to do so. Ashley Milne-Tyte reports.
Ashley Milne-Tyte: Let’s get one thing out of the way . . .
Man on commercial: How would you say Q-A-T-A-R?
People: Cuttar! Kwater? Cattar!
Man on commercial: The proper way to say it is QAT-ar.
That’s an ad for Qatar Airways and its new service between Newark and Doha. It’s joined Emirates Airlines and Etihad Airways to become the third carrier flying from the East Coast to the Gulf. The airlines already attract a loyal crowd of business travelers with jobs in government, banking and energy. But they want vacationers too.
Joe Brancatelli runs business travel website JoeSentMe.com. He says there’s a hot party scene in Dubai, while neighboring Abu-Dhabi is building its own Louvre Museum. But he says the whole region is up against the common American perception.
Joe Brancatelli: “I don’t wanna go there. That’s the Middle East. There’s a war every 5 feet.
The airlines focus their marketing not on the destination but on their reportedly stellar in-flight service. All three aim firmly at passengers with a taste for the high life. Qatar Airways boasts a five-star ranking from airline reviewer Skytrax. The airline’s U.S. Vice President of Operations Eric Pechstein says first-class fliers never had it so good.
Eric Pechstein: A passenger can go to the first class lounge, sit at a table of four with colleagues and wine and dine for the entire flight.
And the red carpet doesn’t run out when you get off the plane. David Field is with Airline Business Magazine. He says the three airlines are vying with each other to attract travelers by building some of the fanciest, most facility-filled airports in the world. Qatar Airways is spending more than $5 billion on its new Doha hub.
David Field: Each of the airports is the height of luxury. Each has luxury hotels. And the flights are timed and designed so that you could very easily have a stay-over, a stop-off in the Middle East and do a lot of shopping.
That stop-off element is important to the airlines’ success. Joe Brancatelli says many of their coach seats are filled by U.S. immigrants, traveling home via the Gulf to see their families in places like India and Southeast Asia. All three airlines want long-haul fliers who can’t necessarily travel direct.
Brancatelli: You’re gonna have to stop somewhere, so there’s a huge competition, as well as “We would like to establish ourselves as a world-class airline.” A huge competition for where will you stop in the world en route to your final destination.
Right now, many passengers fly through London’s Heathrow, which has become notorious for delays. David Field says each Heathrow horror story is a boon for the Middle Eastern airlines.
Field: Because that’s the competition. The competition is a person who was thinking of changing planes in Heathrow.
And who may now decide to make that connection in the Gulf. The carriers certainly seem confident that they can capture more world travelers. Middle Eastern airlines ordered almost $50 billion-worth of new planes this year.
In New York, I’m Ashley Milne-Tyte for Marketplace.
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