Qatar Airways is MEB3 load factor champion to US in 2016; filled over 80% of seats on its 10 routes beating Emirates and Etihad Airways

MEB3 US load factors

The United Airlines CEO recently said some MEB3 flights only had 20-30 passengers on board, whereas this uniquely calculated analysis credits Qatar Airways with a pretty good 82% load factor on its US routes in 2016 (to September). Etihad Airways have sent us their figures for the period and also reported an 82% load factor on their US routes during the same period. Our analysis underestimated their load factors due to some discrepancies with regard to the aircraft capacity data during 2016.

With ‘fake news’, ‘alternative facts’ and an increase in high profile, unsubstantiated claims on all sorts of topics becoming an almost daily occurrence (at least in the US), thought it would be a good time to take a look at a high-profile and contentious issue in the aviation world – that of the MEB3 carriers (Emirates, Etihad Airways and Qatar Airways) and their services to the US. There have been suggestions that the MEB3 airlines have been flooding the US market with too much capacity but what does the data say? found that by combining passenger data from the US Bureau of Transportation Statistics (BTS) with capacity data from OAG Schedules Analyser we can reliably estimate monthly load factors by route on all the US services flown by the MEB3 carriers. The most recent passenger data from the US is for September 2016, so we have analysed the first three-quarters of 2016.

Looking across all routes from the airlines’ home hubs of Abu Dhabi, Doha and Dubai, the load factor champion on US routes among the MEB3 carriers is Qatar Airways. In the first nine months of last year the oneworld carrier 1.34 million passengers on its US routes at a load factor of 82%. Emirates came second, carrying more passengers (2.49 million) but at a lower load factor (75%). Finally, Etihad Airways welcomed 909,000 passengers on its US services at a load factor of 70%. [NB. We have received actual figures from the airline which are published at the bottom of this story.]

The same analysis was repeated for all of 2015 and the results were remarkably similar; Qatar Airways again led the way with an 85% load factor (carrying 1.27 million passengers) followed by Emirates (74% load factor carrying 2.80 million passengers) and Etihad Airways (67% load factor while carrying 1.15 million passengers).

Chicago O’Hare leads the way for Emirates

Looking at Emirates’ 10 US routes in 2016 by month clearly shows an element of seasonality. The best performing route by load factor is Chicago O’Hare (81%), ahead of San Francisco (80%) and Dallas/Fort Worth (79%). The routes with the with the lowest average load factors across the period January to September are Houston Intercontinental (69%), Los Angeles (70%) and Boston (72%). The airline’s fifth-freedom route from Milan Malpensa to New York JFK achieved an average load factor of 66% during the period analysed. In terms of individual months September and February have the lowest load factors for Emirates. In September the LA route even dipped below 50%.

Emirates LF on US routes in 2016

Source: analysis of US BTS RITA data and OAG Schedules Analyser data.

American Airlines hubs star performers for Qatar Airways

Qatar Airways also operated to 10 US airports during the first nine months of 2016, starting new routes to Atlanta (on 1 June), Boston (16 March) and Los Angeles (1 January). Despite this it had the best overall load factors of any of the MEB3 airlines to the US. Standout performers for the Doha-based carrier were Chicago O’Hare (89%) and Dallas/Fort Worth (87%), both bases of its oneworld partner American Airlines, and Los Angeles (86%). Philadelphia (71%), Miami (77%) and Boston (78%) were the only routes to dip below the 80% mark during 2016.

Qatar Airways LF on US routes in 2016

Source: analysis of US BTS RITA data and OAG Schedules Analyser data.

Qatar Airways used an A380 on its inaugural service to Atlanta on 1 June 2016, which famously resulted in the aircraft having to park on a remote stand. Load factors on the route from Doha to Delta Air Lines’ home hub were between 80% and 90% in each of the first three months of operation. Overall, we estimate that Qatar Airways filled 82% of its seats on US flights in the first nine months of 2016 and 85% of seats in 2015.

Californian routes underperform for Etihad Airways

Etihad Airways only operates to six US airports. Its most recent US route launches were to Dallas/Fort Worth in December 2014 and San Francisco in November 2014. So by 2016 all of its routes could be considered reasonably mature. Despite that the Abu Dhabi-based carrier only averaged a 70% load factor across its US routes in 2016. Chicago O’Hare (81%) and Washington Dulles (74%) achieved the highest seat occupancy rates with the airline’s Californian routes disappointing most. Only 62% of seats were filled on the San Francisco route with Los Angeles being only slightly better at 63%. No route achieved a 90% load factor in any month, while San Francisco’s load factor in February was a less than stellar 44%.

Etihad Airways LF on US routes in 2016.

Source: analysis of US BTS RITA data and OAG Schedules Analyser data.

While the passenger figures are from the US government, the capacity data is based on what the individual airlines provide to OAG. If the aircraft type used is different from what was planned (for whatever reason) or the seating configuration of individual aircraft types differs from the data provided to OAG, then our estimated load factors may differ from what the airline registers. If any of the three carriers would like to provide us with their actual flown load factor figures we would, of course, be delighted to share these with our readers.

***STOP PRESS*** Etihad Airways have sent us their actual load factor figures by route for the period January to September 2016. They are: DFW (88%), IAD (85%), JFK (79%), LAX (82%), ORD (87%) and SFO (77%). Overall total – 82%. This is 12 percentage points higher than our estimate. Further investigation has revealed the problem to be that up until December 2016 OAG data showed that the airline’s 777-200LRs had 301 seats (rather than 239), its 777-300ERs had 406 seats (rather than 349) and its 787-9s had 270 seats (rather than 235). Sending correct data to OAG is the responsibility of the airline. Overstating the number of seats flown will clearly result in an underestimate of the flown load factor. 

MEB3 carrier Etihad Airways launched Dallas/Fort Worth service in December 2014

Etihad Airways’ most recent route launch to the US was back in December 2014 when it began non-stop service between Abu Dhabi and Dallas/Fort Worth (DFW). We estimate that the route operated at a load factor of 63% in 2015 and 68% in the first nine months of 2016. [The airline itself has sent us figures saying it achieved an 88% load factor on this route during that period.] For comparison our analysis of OAG and US BTS traffic statistics indicate that Qatar Airways filled 87% of its seats on the DFW route in 2016 while Emirates had a seat occupancy rate of 79% on its route to the Texas hub from Dubai.


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