Last updated: 09:15 AM ET, Wed February 03 2016

How an Airline Put Dubai on the Map

Destination & Tourism | Paul Thompson | February 03, 2016

How an Airline Put Dubai on the Map

PHOTO: Emirates airliners at Dubai International (photos courtesy of Dubai Airports)

When a prince asks you to start an airline, you don’t say no — and that’s exactly what happened to Maurice Flanagan. He was a former executive with British Airways, and expatriate who had moved to Dubai in the late '70s to run a travel agency. Just a few years later, he would found an airline that has changed the way people move around the world.

Emirates Airline was launched in 1985, with the help of another former British airline exec, Tim Clark. Clark, who is a bona fide Knight, had worked with British Caledonian and also Bahrain’s Gulf Air. It’s Clark’s role as head of airline planning early in his tenure with Emirates that is credited with establishing its global network dominance. Thirty years later, they fly the world’s largest fleets of Boeing 777s and Airbus A380s on some of the longest routes, continually winning awards for customer service and cabin experience.

READ MORE: Finnair Finds Success by Emulating Emirates

Dubai, Emirates’ hub airport has grown exponentially in the thirty years since the airline began flying with an Airbus A300, borrowed from Pakistan International Airways on Oct. 25, 1985. It’s not unlike Atlanta’s Hartsfield International, because it’s a transfer point more than a destination for many who fly there, and it’s dominated by one airline. Many people who fly to Dubai would know nothing of the city, if not for Emirates.

The city has similarities to Las Vegas, and envisions itself as a major tourist destination for that region of the world. And like Vegas, each new building there is larger or more lavish than the last. Tourist spots in Dubai include some of the world’s highest rated hotels, the largest and most luxurious shopping malls and an indoor mountain for skiing. Walking around Dubai this fall, the culture clash was impossible to ignore. I saw Muslim men and women in traditional dress, walking right beside tourists and expatriates wearing shorts, t-shirts and sneakers. Dubai could be considered the world’s new melting pot, full of new citizens from Great Britain, India and the U.S.

This year, a new terminal will open at Dubai International (DXB), allowing even more growth. In 2015, international passenger traffic topped 77 million, surpassing Heathrow once again. Heathrow is constrained by limits to the number of planes that can land and take off, referred to as “slots.” With only two runways, planes often land mere seconds after another plane lifts off, in a carefully choreographed ballet. Bad weather or a disabled aircraft leave Heathrow crippled. Dubai has the advantage of plenty of space to grow, along with good weather most of the time.

In fact, growth is already underway — although it’s at a slightly more remote airport, called Al Maktoum International, Dubai World Center (DWC). DWC is south of the main part of the city, and about halfway between Dubai and Abu Dhabi. DWC has been open since 2010, while construction continues. A sprawling complex, it is like Denver’s airport here in the U.S. in that it is removed from the city, and not really bordered by any significant development. DWC is planned to house five runways, and a major hub for air freight, which has rebounded significantly over the past few years.

READ MORE: Dubai International Secures Spot as World's Busiest Airport

Upon completion, DWC will comprise about 54 square miles, including a massive cargo hub, residential zone and even a golf zone. The airport will be able to accommodate 160 million annual passengers (for perspective on that number, the entire 2013 population of the United Arab Emirates numbered 9.3 million. Only 1.4 million are native Emirati, which is roughly the population of Hawaii).

PHOTO: Al Maktoum International, Dubai World Center from overhead.

A major litmus test for DWC’s yet-to-be-completed airport is Dubai’s 6-month-long World Expo in 2020, expected to attract 25 million visitors. DWC will play a crucial role in the transportation infrastructure supporting the Expo. 

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