Rise of the Middle East airlines the single biggest change in business travel in past 20 years

What has been the single biggest 'change agent' in Australian business travel over the past two decades?

It's not the continued evolution of business class or even first class, although they certainly make long-haul flying much more bearable.

You can rule out the Airbus A380. The double-decker jet is a sight to behold, but few airlines kept faith with the early concepts of creature comforts such as onboard lounges and inflight bars.

Arguably, it's been the growth of the Gulf airlines - Emirates, Etihad and Qatar, otherwise known in the airline industry as the ME3 for 'Middle East Three'.

Qantas's well-worn 'Kangaroo Route' to London and Europe via Singapore, and its domination of that flight path with partner airline British Airways, is now a thing of the past (as is the BA link).

Hip hopping

Consider that Emirates, now ranked the world's largest airline in terms of international passengers carried, only started flights to Australia in 1996.

Today, as the chosen betrothed of Qantas, Emirates is second only to the Red Roo itself as Australia's most popular airline, having surpassed the more-established Singapore Airlines on the airline leaderboard.

Consider that Etihad Airways, Emirates' neighbour and competitor, was itself founded in 2003; or that Qatar Airways this week adds a fourth Australian city to its route map.

The Gulf powerhouses offer convenient one-stop flights through to Europe via their Middle East hubs of Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Doha respectively.

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Tyranny of distances

However, the geographical location of their home ports is also something of a challenge for Australians travelling to London in this Middle-Eastern take on the Kangaroo Route.

Instead of that eight-hour flight to Singapore or Hong Kong, followed by a 13-hour stretch to London – a combination which most travellers find is best divided into daytime and overnight legs – travelling with the Gulf airlines flips the trip.

The longer leg is around 14 hours from Australia to Dubai, Abu Dhabi or Doha, followed by seven or eight hours to London or other European destinations.

Emirates

Emirates is the unquestioned leader of the ME3 in the Australian market. It not only flies to all mainland state capitals, but offers cheeky Airbus A380 trans-Tasman flights from Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane to Auckland, which give you arguably the best business class experience across the pond.

Although best known for its private first class suites on superjumbo flights, Emirates' other flights from Australia – and the bulk of those fanning out of Dubai to Europe – run on a Boeing 777-300ER, and that's where the business class experience turns south.

In the Boeing 777's business class cabin, Emirates has adopted 2-3-2 seating, which sees some poor schmuck wedged into a middle seat.

Worse, the seats don't convert into a full flat bed: they employ an uncomfortable angled 'sloping sleeper' design.

Etihad Airways

Etihad Airways is also chipping away at the Australian market. The Virgin Australia partner has just opened its new premium lounge at Melbourne Airport, ahead of next month's debut of Airbus A380 flights between Melbourne and Abu Dhabi.

The A380 rolls out not just great business class seats but world-beating first class suites with 3.6 square metres of space, a separate recliner chair and bed, and a personal vanity cabinet.

Add to this the Boeing 787 Dreamliner, which shuttles daily between Brisbane and Abu Dhabi, and Etihad has a premium proposition for Australia's east coast.

Qatar Airways

For its part, Qatar Airways this week begins flights from Adelaide to Doha. In a coup for the City of Churches, the route will feature the all-new Airbus A350 – the first of these advanced next-generation jets to fly in Aussie skies.

Qatar already flies to Melbourne, Perth and Sydney, and airline CEO Akbar Al Baker plans to upgrade the recently-launched Sydney flight to an Airbus A380 superjumbo mid-year.

It's the A380s and the A350 which boast the best business class experience, not just for the spacious and well-appointed seats but the superjumbo's inflight lounge.

Have these relatively new airlines changed the way you plan your travel? Have they won your business for flights to the UK and Europe, ahead of established airlines such as Qantas and Singapore Airlines? If so, was your choice driven by better seats, superior service, better connections, or price considerations? Let us know in the Comments section.

Few people spend more time on planes, in lounges or mulling over the best ways to use frequent flyer points than David Flynn, the editor of . His unparalleled knowledge of all aspects of business travel connects strongly with the interests of 51698009 readers.

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