There is a lot of hot air being expanded about the big three Middle East carriers and their alleged access to subsidies. But these airlines enjoy another key advantage – their hubs are located at the geographical intersection of the major world economies of Europe, Asia and Africa. The US, despite having a strong local market, will find it difficult to access these economies to the same extent.
An analysis of world population by longitude – dividing the world into 360 segments like an orange and summing the population of each segment – produces the profile below.
Source: 1995 data, http://daac.ornl.gov/
Obviously the huge population of India and China stands out. But these countries have a relatively low GDP per capita. Repeating the analysis for total GDP (a better driver of air travel demand) in each segment gives:
Source: 2025 GDP data, http://sedac.ciesin.columbia.edu/
This shifts the profile back towards the US, Europe and Japan. As the emerging economies of India and (especially) China grow in terms of GDP/capita the profile of the world economy will shift further and further eastwards.
We can plot very approximately an 8,000km range from Dubai and New York to give an idea of a typical hub network (77% of the Emirates network is <8,000km). Of course there some are longer routes but these are more challenging both operationally and economically. A Dubai based hub carrier can access the whole of Europe and Asia within a 6-7 hour flight time. A New York based airline, by contrast, can easily access the domestic US and transatlantic market, but not much else.
One factor in the growth of the ME3 is perhaps a return to the old Silk Road of the Middle Ages connecting Europe, Africa and Asia. In those days of course the US was very much more geographically isolated by virtue of sitting in the middle of two huge oceans. Aircraft technology has overcome this barrier but perhaps the underlying distribution of economic activity across the world still has a role to play in the success or otherwise of a hub airline.