Emirates this week discussed a long-rumored merger with Etihad Airlines. If it occurs, the ‘merger’ (really a takeover) will create one of the largest airlines in the world, with Emirates adding Etihad’s 18.6 million passengers to the 59 million carried by Emirates last year. The combined airlines will boast an impressive fleet of more than 110 Airbus A380s, the largest passenger aircraft in the world, plus an array of additional Airbus and Boeing aircraft.
Yet the acquisition may also represent another nail in the coffin of national airlines, also known as flag carriers. While the finances of the Gulf carriers can be opaque, it’s clear that Etihad, flag carrier of Abu Dhabi, lost $1.52 billion in 2017. While Emirates (also a national airline) reported a 2017 profit of $762 million, Etihad’s 2017 losses came on top of another $1.87 billion loss in 2016.
Such red ink is all too common to national carriers, claims Brian Sumers, a reporter at Skift. And if a wealthy oil-rich sheikdom like Abu Dhabi has tired of the financial bleeding and is willing to merge its airline with Emirates, what will be the fate of national carriers in impoverished countries around the globe?
Even successful airlines face difficulties today. Where does that leave often-inefficient national airlines, operated for national pride rather than profit? They must still meet the same challenges as any other airline, such as costly aircraft, a pilot shortage, higher fuel prices, competition, a looming trade war that may affect travel demand and the possibility of a recession.
In this environment, national airlines may face an economic reckoning, as Etihad apparently already has. “Governments may need to ask if there’s still value to having a national carrier, other than patriotism or pride,” writes Sumers. “And they may wonder whether it still makes sense to prop up airlines as more countries open their skies to new entrants and foreign carriers.”
Originally Published on Forbes.