But the new project in nearby Dubai attracted him and a group of around eight British airline executives. Clark was in his mid-30s and ready for a new adventure. “For all of us, working at an airline was more of a hobby than a profession,” he recalls. “We were all enthusiasts.”
Dubai in the mid-1980s was nothing like it is today. The city consisted more or less of only what is now the old town district in Deira, near the creek. Iconic buildings for which Dubai is famous today were not even in the planning stage. The Burj Al-Arab hotel was started in 1994 and opened in late 1999, as Dubai was becoming a destination for tourism and trade was taking off.
The ground work for Emirates had been underway since 1978, when Maurice Flanagan, another British aviation executive and later Emirates vice chairman, moved to Dubai to run Dnata, a general sales and ground-handling agent for foreign airlines. The initial business plan for Emirates was drawn up in 1984 by Flanagan and his team—Clark joined a year later, just ahead of the airline’s launch. Looking back at his Emirates career, he now says, “I was at the right place at the right time.”
When he joined the nascent carrier, he did what he liked best at the time, going straight into route planning. Emirates started with two aircraft—an Airbus A300 B4 and a Boeing 737—and later obtained two Boeing 727-200s that had been operated by the Dubai air wing, and, in 1987, purchased its first new aircraft, an A310-300. The airline launched its first route, Dubai to Karachi, in late 1985, then started services to Mumbai and New Delhi. Routes to London-Gatwick and Frankfurt were added in 1987, and to Bangkok, Manila and Singapore in 1989.
Not until the early 1990s, however, did Clark begin to realize that Emirates would have a chance to become as big as it is today. “I remember telling a friend in 1988 that the Berlin wall would never come down. A year later it was gone. That was a seminal moment for me,” he says. “If things were to continue to unravel at the same speed, it would open up many opportunities for Emirates,” he says. It is that awareness of global trends, the big-picture vision, that has helped shape the airline, too. “I like to look at myself as a little bit of a globalist,” Clark says.
But it was clear to him that the Emirates expansion as envisioned would not be possible with the aircraft technology available. Its Airbus A300 B4s barely made it from Dubai to London. So the lobbying for more capable aircraft began.
As Emirates continued to grow, so did Clark. Over time, it became increasingly clear that he would succeed Flanagan as the most senior operating executive. Emirates is chaired by Sheikh Ahmed bin Said Al Makhtoum, a member of Dubai’s ruling family, and the airline is only one part—albeit by far the most important one—of the larger Emirates Group. Clark sees Sheikh Ahmed “two or three times a week” and makes no important decision without the sheikh’s input. He sees that “short line of command” as one of the major advantages at Emirates and, in fact, he enjoys having a board of directors, which it would not have, were it publicly listed.
“Very often there is disagreement within boards; the non-executive members may have their own agendas, and it can take forever to just get approval to buy a single aircraft,” Clark says. “I went to Sheikh Ahmed with my plan for 50 more A380s, and we had an immediate agreement.”
Clark’s in-depth airline and aircraft expertise combined with his friendly outspokenness have made him into one of the most influential figures on the customer side of the industry. He is never shy to express his opinion publicly, which does not always make manufacturers happy. “He is the most aggressive [executive] toward the OEMs,” says a senior manager at a major supplier. When Airbus discovered cracks around the rib feet in some areas of the A380 wing in the spring of 2012, Clark detailed to the media what a huge burden the subsequent limitations and repair work meant for Emirates, discounting concerns about possible brand damage.