January 09, 2014
Credit: Rupa Haria
Six days ahead of the 2013 Dubai Air Show, Emirates President Tim Clark had something to talk about with one of the airline’s most important suppliers: He told Airbus that Emirates would like to order more A380s—50 more, to be precise. Until that day, no one at Airbus had any idea such an order might be coming. It is the biggest order ever placed for the slow-selling aircraft.
“The only thing they knew was that I had always been minded to take more,” says Clark. “They were hoping for something like five or eight additional aircraft. When we told them what we wanted, you could tell there was some deep breath-taking.”
“Breathtaking” is certainly a word that comes to mind in connection with Emirates. Launched in 1985 with one Airbus A300 B4 and one Boeing 737, the Dubai-based carrier has morphed into the world’s fourth-largest airline by revenue passenger miles (2012), serving more than 120 destinations. Capitalizing on the advantageous location of its home base—80% of the world’s population is within an 8-hr. flight—the carrier, like Dubai itself, is on the rise, to the detriment of incumbent airlines in Europe, North America and Asia.
And with its rise has come many billion dollars’ worth of orders for jets from Airbus and Boeing. Emirates now accounts for roughly half of the A380 orderbook. On the same day of its huge A380 order, it also placed orders and commitments for 150 Boeing 777X jets, launching the program along with Qatar Airways, Etihad Airways and Lufthansa. Such deep pockets have given Emirates much say in the design of new airliners. The 777X, for example, will feature General Electric GE9X engines with a higher thrust specified by the airline. “We have had a lot of input, but we also buy a lot of airplanes,” says Clark.
For his role in reshaping the competitive landscape in the long-haul airline market and its outsize sway in aircraft design, Tim Clark is Aviation Week’s Person of the Year for 2013.
Clark has been the dominant executive at the airline for many years, joining just before its launch and serving as president since 2003. The London University-trained economist likes to talk about the rise of low-cost carriers being a revolutionary event. But on long-haul routes, it is Emirates and its followers, Qatar and Etihad Airways, that are changing the shape of air travel, among them offering one-stop connections between most points on the globe. And according to the Teal Group, Middle Eastern carriers now account for one out of every three twin-aisle airliners on order.
But Emirates was not much more than an idea 28 years ago. Dubai’s ruling Al Makhtoum family decided that the emirate should have its own airline and provided $10 million in start-up capital (plus two Boeing 727-200s a little later). Management is adamant that this was the only time that the airline received government support. Of course, the competition still complains that Emirates takes advantage of other unfair benefits such as low airport fees in Dubai (which are, however, available to every airline flying there) or access to U.S. and European export-credit financing.
Clark, born and raised abroad as the son of a tanker ship captain, became used to taking flights across the world at an early age. Flying the Super Constellation from London to Borneo was one of his favorite multiple-stop trips. While his brother became a British Airways Boeing 747-400 captain, Clark turned his passion for aviation into a profession on the business side. He joined British Caledonian early in his career, when the airline was in serious trouble. Friends who had joined Gulf Air pushed him to come to the Middle East. And Clark did. “Born as an expat child, going abroad was no problem,” he says. “I had it in me.”
He spent 10 years at Gulf Air in Bahrain, which was then the only airline in the Persian Gulf region that would have been noticed internationally. Its Lockheed L-1011s were a familiar sight at major airports in Europe and Asia. At Gulf Air, Clark played roles in cost control and economics. “I was able to see everything in the company and I therefore learnt a huge deal,” he says of those formative years.