The novel coronavirus has impacted aviation worldwide, and the Persian Gulf region has been no exception. In fact the drop in traffic there has been especially striking. We’ve grown accustomed to seeing thousands of planes a day shuttling people through the Gulf’s capital airports – but all of a sudden in March, that flow of airplanes all but stopped. Doha (DOH), however, offered something of an exception. In order to get a better sense of this, we compiled Flightradar24 data from Doha and Dubai (DXB) to look at how the two Gulf mega-hubs and their home airlines have compared over the past six months.

Qatar Airways decided relatively early to continue to fly as much as possible and position itself as the airline for getting people home. Qatar shut its borders to all but its own citizens and permanent residents (other foreign residents were barred until August), but transit flights were still allowed. Airports in the UAE didn’t start allowing transit flights until June.

As a result Qatar Airways did a brisk business carrying people from places like Australia to Europe, picking up embassy contracts and even adding some new flights during the pandemic. It was part clever marketing tactic, part strategy for finding paying customers at a time when those were very scarce. The following looks at data for flights by all airlines at both.

Doha and Dubai departures compared
Weekly departures from Doha and Dubai compared.

As you can see, Dubai is normally the busier airport by quite a wide margin. Aside from the huge Emirates operation, DXB also sees service from a wider range of airlines around the world. That makes sense when you consider that the population of Dubai (not including the catchment area around the city or the rest of the UAE) is higher than the entire population of Qatar – 3.3 million versus 2.8 million respectively. But when the pandemic shut things down, Doha took the lead in terms of departures and only lost that title in May. It remains only just below Dubai’s figures up to now.

Comparing Emirates to Qatar Airways

Emirates versus Qatar Airways traffic flights
Comparing Emirates flights to Qatar Airways flights since the beginning of the year.

In the above chart we’ve looked at weekly flights at Emirates versus Qatar Airways. It’s interesting to note that Qatar Airways had the bigger operation by number of flights since before the pandemic began. Initially the two airlines dropped flights at roughly the same rate, but by later in March Qatar was running significantly more than Emirates. That was a direct result of the decision to be more aggressive with running repatriation and other transit flights. Through the end of August Qatar Airways maintains a bigger lead than it had pre-pandemic, though Emirates has been doing its best to keep up. As you can see, their trend lines mimic each others, but with Emirates starting from a more drastic drop in departures in March.

Emirates 777-300ER 77W EK Dubai DXB coronavirus
An Emirates 777-300ER after landing at Dubai.

Shifting fleet usage

Looking at the mix of aircraft Qatar Airways has been using is illuminating in part because of what a varied fleet the airline has.

Qatar Airways aircraft types Doha pandemic
Qatar Airways flights by aircraft type.

From this chart we can see that certain aircraft are clear winners: the A350, the 777, and the A321. The A380 dropped off the map as it did with nearly every airline, but so did the 787 and A330 for the most part. More recently, the 777-300ER (77W) specifically looks to be running at near pre-pandemic levels. The A350 is not far off either.

Emirates has a much simpler fleet, but the breakdown of aircraft types used during the pandemic is nonetheless intriguing.

Emirates fleet type Dubai pandemic
Emirates fleet utilization compared.

Again we can see that the 777-300ER (77W) is the go-to aircraft. That’s in part because Emirates has so many of them (129 aircraft plus 3 more parked). But the airline also has 115 A380s, 60 of which are currently parked. And as we can see here the A380 fleet was more or less grounded entirely from late March until July.

The future for the Gulf

In a conversation back in May with Thierry Antinori, Chief Strategy and Transformation Officer at Qatar Airways, he discussed the Qatar Airways approach.

“We’ve faced an unprecedented challenge for our industry, but at the end an airline is there to serve the customer and be a reliable partner for trade,” Antinori said. “As we began to see the world going south, we had a lot of thoughts about our response. Our response was first to focus, instead of panicking. We said, what is our mission? Flying. And we began to focus on what remaining market opportunities we had to do that.”

Qatar Airways has continued to add destinations back to its route map throughout the summer, as has Emirates – just a few steps behind. As the world enters an uncertain period with indications of reduced demand for flights this autumn, both will be hoping they can continue to regrow their networks. Here’s hoping they can.

Gabriel Leigh grew up on long-haul flights and has been fascinated by airplanes since he can remember. Now based in Sweden, he writes about transport, travel and more for publications like The New York Times, Monocle and Forbes.