While he does delegate, Clark is very hands-on where it matters most: network, cabin and aircraft performance. These are an airline’s core areas, determining where it can fly, at what revenue potential and cost burden, and how it will distinguish itself from the competition. “I have hardly ever seen another airline CEO who would go into such great detail when it comes to interiors,” says an executive with a major supplier.
Clark himself jokes that some suppliers have been accustomed to “committees of wives of executive board members” selecting seats or inflight entertainment features.
While he is perceived as a trend-setter on the manufacturing and product side, his vision and knowledge of emerging traffic flows have been key to Emirates’ development. The airline takes a different approach than most in many regards: It is not a member of a global alliance because Clark and his colleagues see that as detrimental to the carrier’s ambitions. On the other hand, Emirates has always been open to bilateral alliances, such as the recent tie-up with Qantas that has shaken the alliance world. And Emirates is not ruling out equity investments—it seriously looked at buying a stake in Air Berlin in 2011, but an involvement with SriLankan Airlines was unsuccessful and has not contributed to management confidence in getting closely involved with operating other airlines.
Rather than going the traditional way, Clark has opted for the unusual, entering markets that others saw only later. It is no coincidence that Emirates’ first route led to Karachi and not London nor that Emirates is huge in Africa, providing vital air links for traders that use Dubai as a hub on their way to Asia (China, in particular). While Emirates’ ultra-long-haul flying to the U.S. West Coast, Latin America and Australia has garnered a lot of public attention, most of its flights are limited to ranges optimal in terms of aircraft efficiency. “The fundamentals of the model have never really changed,” he points out.
And the fundamentals are therefore firmly settled. But with Clark, who is now 63, being such a dominant figure at Emirates for such a long time, one inevitable question is beginning to be discussed internally and with business partners: Who will eventually succeed him? Clark sees “one or two” internal candidates who could take his position even now, and he makes clear that he does not plan to interfere once he steps out. “I’m a believer in ‘when you go, you go,’” he says. But that discussion may well be premature—Flanagan left the airline as vice chairman officially just last year, when he was 84.
For a look at Emirates’ fleet development, go to AviationWeek.com/emirates.
To watch a video on Clark’s influence in the commercial air transport industry go to AviationWeek.com/video.