Just like the rest of the industry, the three largest Middle Eastern airlines had a tough 2020. All three hoped the new year to be the one of growth and restoration.

A good start is half of the job, some say. The airline which secures the lead in the travel industry ravaged by the worst crisis in its history is well-posed to dominate after the hardship passes.

The second half of 2020 was marked by a race to restore networks: the three airlines were locked in an endless dance of announcing resumed connections as soon as new borders were opening. Qatar Airways, which never completely stopped services, still held the lead. But at the end of 2020, Emirates was quickly catching up.

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Three largest Middle Eastern airlines – Emirates, Etihad Airways and Qatar Airways – are continuing to expand their networks. But which one is in the lead?
 
 

The same situation continued into 2021. The first quarter of the new year seemed at least a little more promising for Etihad Airways though, which struggled to keep up before and was dragged down by arguably the largest financial problems of the lot.

But destinations alone do not guarantee income. Some of them are more active, others – not so much. While actual traffic volumes are a closely guarded secret of each airline, we can at least look at the number of flights that are being conducted.

 

While Emirates and Qatar Airways have similar numbers of destinations, the Qatari airline clearly uses them much more heavily. Between January 1 and March 18, it was conducting almost twice more daily flights than Emirates and almost four times more than Etihad.

In fact, Qatar Airways’ average of 411 daily flights so far in 2021 is not that far from the pre-pandemic era. According to historic data gathered from Radarbox.com, the airline conducted, on average, 569 flights per day in January-March 2019. So, it managed to restore 72% of its pre-pandemic traffic; for Emirates and Etihad this number is much smaller – 51% and 43% respectively.

 

Unfortunately, so far it is impossible to tell how many passengers are carried on those flights and how profitable airlines’ operations actually are. But from an operations point of view, Qatar seems to be firmly in the lead in terms of both conducting flights and restoring its network.