Emirates Wants To Partner With A “Big Three” US Airline

Filed Under: Emirates

For years there was so much bad blood between the “big three” US airlines and the “big three” Gulf carriers, though the sentiment is slowly changing. Could we soon see one of the “big three” US airlines partner with Emirates? Emirates’ President, Tim Clark, hopes so.

Emirates wants to work with a “big three” US airline

Emirates President Tim Clark had an interview with Aviation Week yesterday, in which he discussed his desire for a closer relationship with one of the “big three” US airlines. Clark is one of the brightest guys in the airline industry, and I love hearing his insights.

Arguably his most interesting comments revolved around Emirates’ desire for a partnership with American, Delta, or United:

  • Emirates won’t be joining a global alliance, as Clark thinks bilateral agreements are much more beneficial (which is a sentiment shared by an ever-increasing number of airline executives)
  • Emirates already has successful partnerships with Alaska and JetBlue in the US, but also wants a partnership with an even bigger airline
  • Clark argues that Emirates could generate huge amounts of revenue for a major US airline

As Clark explained in the interview:

“It makes far more sense to have Emirates deal with one of the big three and deliver huge amounts of business, because we are the single largest producer … coming out of the East [beyond Europe] into the United States. There’s a huge opportunity there that Emirates could bring to the United States without going into an alliance. It would be a tap that you turned on, sat back, and watched us fill large numbers of their airplanes.”

Emirates wants to partner with American, Delta, or United

Which major US airline could Emirates partner with?

Arguably US airlines are warming up a little bit to Gulf carriers. At a minimum, the “big three” US airlines are divided about these airlines, unlike in the past. So, would American, Delta, or United be most likely to partner with Emirates?

American Airlines & Emirates

American Airlines recently announced a new strategic partnership with Qatar Airways:

  • American is seriously considering adding flights to Doha
  • This represented a reversal of American’s previous plan to scale back their partnership with Qatar Airways
  • In reference to the previous anti-Gulf airline rhetoric, American Airlines CEO Doug Parker said “the issues that led to the suspension of our partnership two years ago have been addressed”

Given American’s closer partnership with Qatar Airways, I’d assume that means American is out, and that leaves Delta Air Lines and United Airlines. Interestingly both of these airlines partnered with Emirates back in the day.

Which airline would be a better fit for Emirates — Delta or United?

It seems highly unlikely that American would partner with Emirates

Delta Air Lines & Emirates

Many years ago Delta had a partnership with Emirates, but how has that sentiment changed? Looking at Delta Air Lines currently:

  • Delta is most aligned with Emirates’ desire to not join any alliances, as it’s the same direction Delta is headed, instead focusing on mutually beneficial partnerships
  • Delta primarily likes partnering with airlines they can invest in, and I’m not sure that’s realistic with Emirates at this point for a variety of reasons
  • Delta has historically been the most anti-Gulf of the “big three” US airlines, and it may be tougher for Delta to walk back on that
  • Delta lacks a strong partner in the region; United Airlines has EgyptAir and Turkish Airlines for connectivity to the region, while Delta only has a lukewarm partnership with Saudia, which could easily be replaced

There are things working for & against a Delta & Emirates partnership

United Airlines & Emirates

Many years ago Continental and United had a partnership with Emirates. Looking at United Airlines’ current situation:

  • They have hubs at more US airports served by Emirates than Delta does, including in Houston, Los Angeles, Newark, San Francisco, and Washington Dulles
  • There have been rumors for a while that Etihad and United have been in discussions about a partnership; if that’s accurate, it shows that United is at least willing to engage in a conversation with a Gulf carrier
  • United talking to Etihad could also be a limitation, because there are rumors of Etihad joining Star Alliance, and the airline announced an Air Canada partnership today; if United were to partner with Etihad, then Emirates would be off the table

United has allegedly been in discussions with Etihad about a partnership

Is a partnership with Emirates profitable, though?

Clark makes the point that Emirates could drive an incredible amount of volume onto any US airline, which is definitely true. The question is whether that type of business is profitable.

Emirates has reasonable fares to begin with, and keep in mind most fares include checked bags, and Emirates passengers disproportionately check bags, given the types of journeys they’re taking.

While a partnership with Emirates could no doubt fill seats, I know one major hesitation for US airlines has been how low yield this traffic has been, especially on itineraries involving both airlines. They’re not getting as much in fees, and in many cases the reimbursement for the connecting segments aren’t great.

Also keep in mind that both Delta and United have very strong transatlantic joint ventures, and this poses a challenge for a couple of reasons:

  • Emirates flies from New York to Milan and Newark to Athens, which are fifth freedom flights that these airlines have long had issues with
  • Even for connections to India, Africa, the Middle East, etc., Delta and United have strong incentives to book passengers on a joint venture partner, rather than just on another airline
  • Without a joint venture the upside for a US airline seems fairly limited, and a joint venture seems unlikely given existing arrangements

Emirates can fill seats, but can they do so profitably?

Bottom line

Emirates wants to partner with one of the “big three” US airlines, which is nothing new, though it’s interesting to hear it reinforced even during this time.

I’d say American is definitely out, given the new Qatar Airways strategic partnership. That leaves the question of whether Delta or United might be interested.

Personally I think it seems like a stretch with either of those airlines. The circumstance under which I could see this playing out would be if United does in fact partner with Etihad, in which case you have one US airline and one Gulf airline that remain unaligned. At that point it might just be a situation of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.”

What do you think — could we see Emirates partner with one of the “big three” US carriers?

  1. Would partnering with Delta or United hurt their relationship with Alaska, given Alaska’s joining OneWorld? As a devout Mileageplan member, I sure hope not…

  2. Doesn’t Emirates already partner w/ Alaska? At the peak of travel season, they used to have 2 daily flights out of Seatac I thought … ?

  3. Delta is probably the only one who could provide the nearest/least far level of service. I know I wouldn’t particularly enjoy getting off an Emirates flight and then having to deal with AA/UA flight attendants

  4. Well if true then we Alaska FF are screwed. Not only do we have to endure American Airlines and all it brings now the thought of losing the ability of flying EK makes it even more disastrous now questioning the wisdom of AS management.

    I Worte and asked then and I do now what were they thinking? Especially with Parker running AA and it does not look like he is going anywhere soon.

  5. I’m putting my money on Delta. Although EK doesn’t currently fly to ATL, that could easily change. Delta has invested in both the soft and hard product in their offering, whereas United can’t get much worse – between the terrible PR and the poor state on their planes and terminals. I believe customer experience is something that Emirates would certainly keep in mind when choosing a partner, especially when it comes to their premium flyers.

  6. haha – like lambs to the slaughter just ask Qantas.
    Lets see who is the dumbest of the bunch

  7. Someone please re-upload the textbook campaign example ‘Our Future, Our Fight’ xoxo

  8. For US airlines its not worth feeding EK giant planes for such a low cost where most of the booking got 43 KG included ..no extra income what so ever. Its EK desperate attempt to fill up the seats . EK knows that DL ..AA…UA will not tarnish their close connection with IAG..KLM..Lufthansa to get middle east airline in their pocket..especially when it not ensuring a big deal of income out of it .

  9. United potentially partnering with Etihad doesn’t necessarily mean that an Emirates partnership is off the table; both Malaysia and Korean partner with both.

  10. I see it that Delta would be the most likely candidate.

    They have the most premium product and they have investment stakes into other companies in the alliance such as Aeromexico, KLM, AirFrance and Korea Air.

    But I don’t see how delta could possible turn their stance completely and make a partnership, cause they were so vocal against The big 3ME

    I feel that United’s hub’s work best with Emirates and their network overlap, but I’m sure Lufthansa would not be happy about that.

    I don’t understand why is Emirates not satisfied with JetBlue and Alaska??

    They fly to Boston, JFK, Orlando, FLL, Seattle, Los Angles, and SFO. I feel like JetBlue and Alaska can cover enough of Emirates network.

  11. @Sharon JetBlue has a mostly all-economy fleet, so if you have a business or First class ticket on EK, you don’t want your first leg to be in Y. For most Mint routes from the West Coast, you could have take EK direct to DBX.

    Alaska doesn’t add as much as Delta would. If I’m in Denver, I don’t want to fly to Seattle to then fly to Dubai. Whereas Delta flies to Atlanta from nearly everywhere, re-positioning passengers closer to Dubai.

  12. Etihad and Emirates will merge in a post COVID-19 world and most probably United will be the one partnering with EK

  13. Word “Partnership” is overstated is more close to a cooperation and codesharing flights. AC -EY is very similar to what AA-EY signed sometime ago and remain valid… EY have strong tied to SkyTeam airlines and probably it would be more closer to do things with DL… But they will remain unalligned as EK… I see EK more towards UA than DL… I’m tired to listen about the three big… AS is big and great airline….way better than DL and UA… AA has improved over those two…

  14. I’m not sure I would count AA out completely for some level of partnership, even if it doesn’t go as far as a codeshare agreement.

    • Qatar is the weakest of the Gulf carriers, due partly to the political situation — Qatar has been blockaded by Saudi Arabia and the UAE for several years now — and partly to Qatar’s precarious financial position.
    • I’m sure AA would jump at the chance to ink a relationship with one of the stronger carriers in the region given the above. Also, it would be in-character for AA to flip its position 180º. Sometimes it’s cited as demonstrating a lack of strategic vision; one might also call it opportunism (in the positive business sense of the term).
    • AA has the biggest presence at JFK out of the US Big 3 — operating Terminal 8 exclusively — which is probably Emirates’ single biggest port of entry.
    • Also, keep in mind that AA still has a nominal partnership with Etihad, despite Qatar joining Oneworld. You can book Etihad to AUH on aa.com, as has been mentioned frequently in articles.

  15. I think that Emirates looking for “bigger” partner with a more extensive network, means 1 thing and that is that Emirates is looking to greatly cut capacity to the US (Supported by the fact that Tim Clark mentioned that EK will go back to “normal” post 2024).
    The partnership/code-share will be useful for until 2024, where Emirates will be able to restore capacity on their major American points and then back to Jet Blue and Alaskan.

  16. People forget that one was able to redeem Continental miles for EK flights not that long ago!

  17. Another thing that makes a Delta partnership somewhat more likely than with United (though still not all that likely) is that Delta has less service to South Asia than United, which serves Delhi and Mumbai.

  18. @Luke – separate link coming (a few years out of date), but DL is 3x the size of AA at JFK

  19. AK will be with OneWorld and Qatar, already dropping Emirates (as one should). I think DL and Emirate deserve each other. UA be smart for once and stay out of it. Eithad won’t be around much longer either.

  20. For those who gave AA some hope, I think they are foolish without considering recent happenings. OW unlike other alliances are pretty close knit, QF aside and with the renewed cooperation with QR and all of QR moving to T8 in JFK there is no way AA will see EK as strategically correct. At least with QR the commitment isn’t so large to send passengers the other way with the limited routes and the much smaller planes that it flies stateside.

  21. A lot of this will depend heavily on the revenue sharing or reimbursement agreement. DL is no fool, and will not fill their planes with dirt cheap revenue from Emirates passengers connecting on to DL flights. Nor will they overly pay EK for the opportunity to feed them passengers. Like Richard Anderson once said, “We’re running an airline; not a hobby.”

    All that said, DL needs a reputable partner in the Mid East and Africa markets. EK would be a good fit.

  22. I personally think, delta will make a better option for them likewise it will be for delta aswell. Therefore, it will be a win win for both parties. Currently delta lack extensive coverage in India (especially
    after the collapse of Jet Airways) and pretty much almost no coverage other south asian countries such as Bangladesh,Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Maldives Nepal and other Mid-Smaller Indian cities. This way delta can terminate service to India especially now they are retiring all of their 777s. They will do one stop service to all of India and the rest of South Asia, Europe, and parts of East Africa. Delta can reintroduce flights from ATL to DXB, may add service from Minniappolis and Detroir on their own metal.Miniaapplolis, JFK, BOS, SEA, DTW will provide access to canadian cities along with WestJet which is already an Emirates partner. On the other hand, ATL, DFW,, FLL, MCO, IAH, LAX will provide access to Mexico and Central America, and the carribien along with AeroMexico. LAX will provide connection to the south west and Hawaii for Amerites. If these do take place I see EK dropping JetBlue and EK may be scared of AS cozying up with QR as it ramps up to become an OW member. EKs enemy is QR whose enemy is DL. Enemy of and Enemy could best friends made in heaven. Plus things are not so calm between AA and DL.I also believe if EK and DL cozy up, DL will being this to their European partners into it at some point for them to benefit for the gaps they currently have in parts of south asia and east Africa such as Ethiopia, Eriethria, Somalia etc, just like the way it happened with jet airways. With international travel being down and it would make more sense for DL to get into this it will bring feeding passengers into their network and it will also benefit Emirates as they can still usd their a380 to transport passengers.

  23. US3 will not partner with EK. Very little upside, too many downside.

    Tim Clark is having trouble filling up A380 in the post COVID world.

  24. 1. May 2019. EK signs codeshare agreement with LATAM.
    2. December 2019. Delta acquires a 20% share in LATAM.
    3. January 2020. Boom! No EK-LA codeshare.

  25. Everyone keeps focusing on the 380’s those are / will become a thing of the past, for the most part. Will they still fly them, of course for the immediate future load demands will dictate that. Having said that they made their splash, got attention and a following, myself being one. However going forward will we see that volume of traffic ? Not sure. Remember a huge amount of their main cabin/coach came from second/third world passengers.

    Delta seems like the most likely partner but they have their own issues now to deal with.

  26. @Todd – Great Circle Mapper disagrees:
    DEN-SEA-DXB: 8,449mi
    DEN-ATL-DXB: 8,799mi
    Also, SEA is 174 miles closer to DXB than ATL is.

    Depending on the connecting times it’s a toss-up. SEA airport is a bit of a mess right now, but once the construction is finished I’d rather connect there than ATL anyway.

  27. As a very frequent flier with Emirates before covid shutdown had lots of trouble through check-in baggages with US airlines while departing out due to abscence of sharing agreements. For this atleast I feel a partnership will help remove passenger discomfort, United would be a better choice..

  28. @dfw88

    I really don’t think Great Circle Mapper should be used like this. Flying trip doesn’t have a 1:1 relative to distance.

    Great Circle Mapper should be used for only 2 things
    1. Illustrate a fancy route map.
    2. Measure or find distance but never routing or flight time.

    Personally, I’d do ATL over SEA. Operationally, it will be ATL over SEA.

  29. Personally I do not think so. EK is just fishing for more infos how the US airlines would react and if pax want an EK-US alliance. EK has enough connections to the US, they do not really need a US feeder. On the other side US airlines will definitely gain more access to African, Asian markets etc in which EK has good connections.

  30. I could see them partnering with United but it would require clearing two big hurdles. The first and the biggest would be Emirates merging with Etihad. That’s obviously a huge ask, but it seems necessary for both their continued survival and also because Etihad seems poised to join the Star Alliance.

    Second would be for United and the NY/NJ Port Authority to do some serious work to Newark Airport. For a partnership to work, United and Etihad/Emirates would need to operate out of the same airports. LAX, SFO, IAD, IAH, and ORD would all be no problem. In New York however, they operate out of completely separate airports. Since I don’t see United moving back to JFK anytime soon, they would all have to utilize EWR as their main NYC/East Coast Hub.

    It is not a bad time to start to plan a move to EWR as The Port Authority has just begun the planning for for replacing Terminal B. As it currently stands, terminal B would be an embarrassing place for Emirates/Etihad to operate out of. There is no suitable space for them to build their large lavish lounge, the airport can’t currently handle A380 traffic, and it can barely handle the passenger volume it has now. So following both those major hurdles and somehow also getting Lufthansa onboard with the partnership, I think it might just work.

  31. I don’t think Delta is an option ! American Airlines is the best option. So far Qatar Airways has a lot of problems within OneWorld Alliances with British Airways, Iberia, American Airlines, Cathay Pacific Airways, Qantas, Finnair. OneWorld Alliance needs to divorce from Qatar Airways period. Alaska Airlines had a long partner with Alaska Airlines soon to be an alliance with OneWorld. OneWorld Alliance Airlines offers (Premier class) First Class service Qatar Airways don’t offer! Qatar Airways should switch to Delta Airlines because of very similar only business class within Skyteam Alliances!

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