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29 November 2023

Emirates: most powerful airline in history

By David Robertson


There has never been an airline as powerful as Emirates in the entire history of the aviation industry. Pan Am got close in the 1960s and was sufficiently influential to pressure Boeing into going ahead with the 747 project, thereby ushering in the “jumbo” age and mass long-haul transit as we know it today. Now Emirates is ushering in the “superjumbo” age with its support for Airbus’ double-decker A380, enabling the airline to bring air travel to an even wider audience.

In the 20 years since Emirates was founded, it has been transformed from an industry minnow to the carrier that sets the global standard.

It was initially regarded as the plaything of rich Arabs and no threat to the legacy carriers of the United States and Europe, which have defined the industry for much of the jet age. But the game has changed and it is now Emirates calling the shots.

The A380, for example, really only became viable once Emirates came on board with an order for 43 of the $300 million (Dh1.1bn) aircraft. It was a staggering commitment and even now there are those in the industry who suspect it will backfire. But Emirates has persisted with its vision of the A380 as the aircraft that will link the great cities of the world (preferably via Dubai) and has increased its order to 58 – worth $16.5 billion at list prices. With over a third of all A380 orders, Emirates has become so vital to Airbus that the airline effectively controls the European aerospace giant.

The entire $18bn project hinges on Emirates’ continued support – and with it Airbus’ long-term ability to survive in the wide-body aircraft market. This has given Emirates enormous power over Airbus and, as a result, the airline is capable of influencing the future design of new planes. Tim Clark, President of Emirates, dangled an order for 100 next-generation, mid-sized aircraft in front of Airbus for a couple of years but only agreed the order (at last year’s Dubai air show) when he got the design that fitted his needs. As a result the new A350 will be about 18 per cent bigger than Boeing’s 787 and it will have a lightweight composite frame rather than the aluminium one originally proposed by Airbus.

Emirates has less clout with Boeing but this has not stopped the airline from trying to strong-arm the Americans. Emirates wants a 787-10, a bigger version of the currently available aircraft, and a lighter version of the 777-300ER. It is also offering to buy the 747-8, an upgraded version of the old bird, if Boeing shrinks it. The 747-8 has a range of 8,000 miles (12,874km) but Tim Clark wants a plane that will do the 8,339 miles (13,420km) that separate Los Angeles and Dubai. If Boeing agrees, it will get a big order for an aircraft that has so far failed to capture the industry’s imagination. But if Boeing does shrink the 747-8 to suit Emirates’ range requirements, other carriers will be forced to put up with fewer seats than previously advertised. And this is the problem that airlines have in trying to compete with Emirates: everyone else has to live by its standards.

In the past, Boeing and Airbus built planes designed to the lowest common denominator – they were built to suit the largest possible number of clients. But as development costs have spiralled with the introduction of new carbon-fibre technologies, it is vital to get some big orders in early to offset the $10bn-plus investment in each new project. The aerospace industry has become like the movie business – big opening weekends are vital to cover the ballooning cost of special effects. Any airline (or leasing company) bringing an order for 100 aircraft to the table will get a very large say in how that plane is put together.
The rest of the world’s airlines are now buying planes that have been optimised for Emirates, and it makes them mad as hell. To counter Emirates’ dominance I suspect we will begin to see the emergence of collective bargaining as carriers with similar needs – say British Airways and American Airlines – pool their orders to get what they want. We may even see the alliances, One World and Star, ordering exclusive designs. But that will be at least a decade away and, until then, Emirates will continue to set the standards.
(David Robertson is Strategic Industries Correspondent of The Times of London)