Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the prime minister of Dubai and a very savvy businessman, had a plan.
He would turn his sandy sheikdom, with its propitious location on the southern edge of the Persian Gulf, into an international trade and tourism center, a transit hub in the Middle East, the likes of which the world had yet to see.
But first, he needed an airline.
Emirates’ service and amenities get rave reviews.
So, in 1985, he gave $10 million and two leased aircraft to a management team that included Tim Clark, the current president of Emirates Airline, with the mandate to start an international aviation company of the highest order.
The first Emirates flight took off for Karachi, Pakistan, on Oct. 25, 1985, from a Dubai airport that was "lots of sand and very little tarmac," according to Nigel Page, Emirates Airline senior vice president of commercial operations for the Americas.
And, in the 23 years since, the airline has grown to encompass a fleet of more than 122 modern, wide-bodied aircraft that fly to some 100 destinations in 62 countries from its new $4.5 billion Dubai terminal.
Emirates Airline currently has 232 aircraft on order, including options, at a cost of $54 billion, with a new plane arriving approximately every four weeks. Emirates also has one of the youngest fleets in the world and, therefore, one of the most fuel-efficient. The average age of an Emirates jet is five years compared to 15-20 years for most other airlines.
Fuel efficiency is rather important to the company and to Dubai. Because Dubai has fewer oil reserves than the rest of the Emirates, Sheikh Mohammed, like his father and older brother before him, has sought other means to increase the royal coffers.
In December, Emirates launched its new Dubai/San Francisco route, marking its fourth destination in the U.S. after New York, Houston and Los Angeles, which launched in October. In the Americas, Emirates also flies to Toronto; Sao Paolo, Brazil; and Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Both the Los Angeles and San Francisco routes mark the first non-stop operations connecting Dubai to the West Coast. And, both routes feature the Boeing 777-200LR, the longest-range commercial airplane available, which offers 266 seats in three class configurations. The New York/Dubai route features both the Airbus A380 and the Boeing 777-300ER.
I recently flew the Los Angeles/Dubai route in business class. The 16-hour flight was so comfortable and filled with things to do that I joked the flight was way too short. The crew, which came from several continents, spoke almost a dozen languages between them and reminded me of the flight crews I encountered when I flew Pan Am as a child.
Each flight attendant oozed a movie-star glamour that was an integral part of flying during the ’50s and ’60s. In their heels and pencil skirts, the mostly female crew was incredibly chic.
The Emirates service was all-smiles and impeccable, and the amenities were abundant. The lie-flat seat with a massage feature was very comfortable. And there were more than 1,000 entertainment channels on its Information Communication and Entertainment (ICE) digital system — including a feed from a camera positioned under the plane — delivered via a 17-inch, high-definition screen that made the time, well, fly.
I also visited the first-class private suites — there are eight on the Boeing 777-300ER — which have electronic sliding doors providing total privacy. Perks in first class include fresh flowers, a 23-inch, high-definition screen and room service: You dine from a menu when you desire. Vintage Dom Perignon flows in first, along with other world-class wines. (When was the last time you saw a 1991 Corton-Charlemagne on a wine list in the U.S.?)
At night, throughout the plane, when the cabin lights are dimmed, the ceiling becomes a maze of stars and constellations, a feature that is supposed to help with jet lag. (I am sorry to say, it had little effect on me.)
According to the Los Angeles Times, Emirates is one of the worlds’ fastest-growing carriers. And, according to the International Air Transport Association, Emirates Airline was the eighth-largest airline in terms of passengers carried in 2007 and the fifth-largest in terms of scheduled international passenger-kilometers flown.
"Size is one thing, but the more realistic measurement of an airline is whether or not you are profitable," said Page. "You can be a big airline, but if you are losing money, what’s the point?"
Emirates has been nothing if not profitable for the past few years. For the 2007/08 financial year, The Emirates Group recorded net profits of $1.45 billion and group revenue of $11.2 billion, up 54 percent from the previous year.
In December, however, multiple news sources reported that Abu Dhabi might provide Emirates Airline with a cash bailout, in return for which it would assume control of the carrier. Emirates chairman and CEO Sheikh Ahmed bin Saeed Al Maktoum, however, has denied such reports.
Also in December, Emirates reported that net income for the six-month period ending Sept. 30, 2008, had dropped 88 percent to $77 million, due in large part to rising fuel costs. Sales during that same period, however, increased 31 percent to $6 billion, thanks to an 11 percent jump in passenger traffic.
Clients in first class fly in a private suite.
Although Emirates is fully owned by the government of Dubai, the company receives no gov-ernment subsidies.
"Every year, we have to present a budget that shows the rulers we are going to make money, otherwise they’ll find other management to do the job for them," explained Page. "We are run like a private company. Though the chairman and CEO is the prime minister’s uncle and all the major decisions, like buying aircraft, are run through him, the management runs the business. Our president, Tim Clark, reports to Sheikh Ahmed, but Clark runs the airline."
In the past two decades, Emirates and Dubai have both grown exponentially. Emirates is now more than an airline, having evolved into a travel and tourism colossus encompassing numerous entities under The Emirates Group banner. These include Dnata, a supplier of air travel service in the Middle East; Emirates SkyCargo; Emirates Hotels & Resorts; and Emirates Aviation College, among 40 brands employing over 30,000 people.
And Dubai is certainly not the place Page knew when he first came there in 1974 as a young airport duty officer with BOAC, the forerunner of British Airways (BA), for whom he worked 25 years before joining Emirates in 1993.
"In those days, life in Dubai was very simple," Page remembered. "Jumeirah Beach Road consisted of a dozen bungalows before it petered out to a sand tract and beaches."
There were no big hotels or fancy restaurants; people had dinner parties at home.
"You’d get fruits and vegetables from the market and fish from the fish market," said Page. "A guy would follow you around with a wheel barrow and fill it up with your purchases, then he’d wheel it back to the car for a dirham."
As Dubai strives to position itself as a cutting-edge global hub — the new tallest building in the world, Burj Dubai, is nearly completed — Emirates remains dedicated to state-of-the-art air travel and tourism services.
Emirates was the launch customer for the Airbus A380, an aircraft that offers better fuel econ-omy per passenger mile than most hybrid cars. Emirates’ inaugural flight to San Francisco was a "green" flight trail that demonstrated multiple fuel- and emission-saving measures. These included the use of electrical power on the ground in Dubai, modification of the flight plan en route to compensate for weather and wind, use of a new North Pole route and a single-engine taxi to the gate. The result was a savings of more than 2,000 gallons of fuel and 30,000 pounds of carbon emissions on the 16-hour flight.
Emirates has also saved 2.6 million gallons of fuel and 772 hours of flight time in the five years since it started working with the AirServices Australia, an Australian government-owned corporation, to pioneer Flex Tracks, a program that uses state-of-the-art ground and cockpit technology to track live weather to help pilots chase tailwinds and favorable conditions.
Travel agents are taking advantage of Emirates expanded service to the U.S. to book clients to Dubai and beyond. Emirates passengers from the U.S. frequently connect through Dubai to other points in the Gulf or to points in south or eastern Africa. Currently, there are three Emirates Airline flights a week available from both Los Angeles and San Francisco; beginning this May, Emirates hopes to add daily flights to and from both cities.
Though he wouldn’t say where — "I don’t want to tip off our competitors," he quipped — Page is certain Emirates Airline will eventually fly to another three or four destinations in the Americas. Right now, the company’s expansion plans are only limited by how quickly they can receive aircraft.
"When I came back to Dubai in 1987 for BA, the first mistake I made was to underestimate Emirates," Page recalled. "Emirates started with a daily nonstop to Gatwick and BA had one-stop service to Heathrow via Kuwait. I thought it surely wouldn’t be a problem taking on a nonstop to Gatwick with Emirates. Well, they really taught us a lesson."
And as long as Page is working for Emirates, he is going to make sure the airline continues to raise expectations.