Growing foreign carriers grabbing air space

Akbar Al Baker, the lithe chief executive of Qatar Airways, sidles into the cockpit of a brand new Airbus A330-200 parked on the broiling tarmac at the Paris Air Show, the latest member of Qatar's 58-jet fleet.

As both a licensed pilot and CEO, he's clearly comfortable in the driver's seat.

He should be, after all. Al Baker and other international airline CEOs are the toast of the show here this week.

Aerospace, an industry long dominated by U.S. players, is going global. That has never been more evident at this giant aircraft and military bazaar.

Qatar has placed the largest order, so far: 80 Airbus A350 XWBs and three Airbus superjumbo A380s. Indeed, the spate of orders from customers like Qatar, Emirates and Singapore Airlines has spurred aircraft sales to new heights over the past two years, even while older American and European carriers remained on the sidelines.

Qatar and India-based Jet Airways, whose weeks-old Boeing 777 is parked nearby Qatar's plane, are rapidly building international networks and buying fleets of aircraft flush with the latest comforts and technology. They're targeting the U.S. for expansion and eyeing Chicago.

Jet Airways plans to begin flying between India and Chicago next year. Qatar is finalizing a code-share agreement with United Airlines that would let passengers who fly on its jets from the Middle East or Europe to connect to Chicago and other U.S. cities.

"The potential is large," said Saroj Datta, executive director of Mumbai-based Jet Airways.

With deep pockets and new planes, they have an advantage over U.S. carriers on lucrative overseas routes, and they intend to take full advantage.

"I think they will have a difficult time keeping pace," Al Baker said.

Chicago-based Boeing Co. and France-based Airbus SAS have enjoyed the spoils from their duopoly in a record-breaking market. But now other countries want in.

Scott Carson, president and CEO of Boeing Commercial Airplanes, called this dynamic market "the new reality" in a market overview Monday. "Boeing has to adapt to that reality."

That new reality, for Boeing, soon could mean facing tough competition from other players beyond Airbus. Russia and China are keen to establish themselves as aerospace powers.

Indeed, Boeing has hired more than 1,000 engineers in Russia, one of the countries with aerospace aspirations, and is helping a Russian manufacturer develop a regional jet.

Meanwhile, outside the hall, the Jet Airways Boeing 777 and Qatar Airways A330 dominate the line of jets on display that stretches nearly a mile.

For executives at both airlines, nationalism is entwined with commerce at this show.

Jet Airways is trying to make its name by providing amenities like beds and pull-out wooden tables for first-class passengers. Emirates and Singapore Airlines have successfully used luxury and service to build a large customer base.

"We want to prove to the world that India isn't merely known for information technology," said Datta.

Becoming the launch customer for the A350, despite the plane's early design troubles, is a matter of pride for Qatar, a Persian Gulf state frequently overshadowed by such neighbors as Dubai in the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia.

"It really charts the future direction of Qatar aviation and for my country," Al Baker said. "It strongly puts the name Qatar in the aviation industry."

jjohnsson@tribune.com



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