Middle East is new global travel crossroads

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Emirates got $10 million in startup cash from the government in 1985. The airline’s president, Tim Clark, says his airline has had no assistance since and benefits from economies of scale. The airline reported a net profit of $628 million in its most recent fiscal year.

“People keep saying we’re cheats,” he says. “What they can’t understand is that something could be as good and profitable as it has been without subsidies. You know why? Because they’ve all had subsidies themselves and they still can’t make it.”

Mr. Clark says the U.S. government subsidizes airlines by allowing them to wipe out debt in bankruptcy court. All three of the largest U.S. airlines — American, Delta and United — have used the courts in the past decade to restructure.

European airlines stand to lose the most business because of their geography, but that doesn’t mean that U.S. carriers aren’t watching closely.

The three Gulf airlines already fly to Chicago, Dallas, Houston, Los Angles, New York, San Francisco, Seattle and Washington and are adding flights at breakneck pace. The airlines aren’t just dipping their toes into these markets; they are diving in, in some cases with giant double-deck Airbus A380s that can seat 489 passengers.

“I think they are a clear threat, much more so to our European and Asian colleagues, but nonetheless a threat to U.S. airlines as well,” Jeff Smisek, CEO of United Continental Holdings Inc., said at an investor conference last March. “They have a very good product. And they have the total and absolute support of their governments.”

The airlines are not household names yet, but they will be soon, analysts say.

United was a key sponsor of the U.S. Open tennis tournament for more than a decade. But last year, Emirates took over with a seven-year deal reported to have cost $90 million.

Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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