From Desert To Riches: The History Of Emirates

In celebration of the Dubai Air Show, Simple Flying is going to look at Emirates. What began as a small Gulf carrier with ambitions became one of the world’s most luxurious and far-reaching airlines operating today.

Emirates history
Emirates Boeing 727 – Their first aircraft. Photo: Ken Fielding via Flickr

Where did it begin?

Oddly enough, Emirates’ humble beginning is far different from those of other airlines like British Airways or Singapore, who have long legacy histories from the dawn of aviation.

Our story begins in 1985 with Gulf Air, the regional carrier flying around the Gulf area of the Middle East. The carrier began to remove services as they felt they were just acting a feeder route for other long haul carriers, causing Dubai to slowly lose essential services.

Thus the royal family of Dubai proposed a new airline centered around Dubai that could secure air transportation services for the country and the region. Emirates was founded with a modest fund from private enterprise, $10 million USD from the royal family and support from Pakistan International Airways.

The new airline leased a Boeing 737-300 and an Airbus A300-200 from Pakistan International Airways (technically on loan), as well as two Boeing 727-200s from the Dubai Royal Family. The carriers’ first flight was Dubai–Karachi on 25 October 1985 (EK600).

In the first year, the carrier transported 260,000 passengers and caused rival Gulf Air to suffer a 56% cut to its profits.

Emirates History
Emirates A300. Photo: Aldo Bidini via Wikimedia

Expanding the fleet

In 1987 Emirates started to expand its fleet with a second 727-200, and its first fully-owned aircraft, an Airbus A310. The same year it launched its first service to Western Europe to London Gatwick. Then, the following months saw Frankfurt via Istanbul and the Maldives to the east. By the end of the year, the carrier was now serving 11 destinations. By the time the decade was closing up the airliner was flying to Bangkok, Manila, Singapore and a route to Hong Kong followed in 1991.

This first period saw Emirates grow by 30% each year.

The Gulf War

By the early 90s, the carrier was transporting around 1.6 million passengers per year and was one of the world’s fastest-growing airlines. But then fate threw another easy catch for Emirates – the Gulf War.

Now, the Gulf War was a horrible event that affected many people around the world and caused destruction and tragedy. However, during that time, Emirates continued to fly and was able to monopolize the market blocked by other carriers (their home countries would not let aircraft fly near the war zones).

Following the war, Emirates was in a prime position to expand its reach even further. It partnered with US Airways and offered a round-the-world-ticket to prospective people. By this time its fleet was comprised of six A300s and eight A310s flying to 37 destinations.

One of these destinations would become incredibly profitable for Emirates. Dubai to Singapore to Melbourne, operated by their new Boeing 777-200 in 1996, opened the gateway to Oceania. It created the cornerstone of the Emirates (and other Middle Eastern carriers) empire they still operate today.

Emirates’ 777-200 in modern livery. Photo: Emirates.

Doubling the capacity with a double-decker

By now, in the early 2000s, Emirates was a force to be reckoned with. They flexed their buying muscle with an order for 25 Boeing 777-300s, eight Airbus A340-500, three Airbus A330-200s, and 22 of the A380s that they are famous for.

Dubai Airshow, Aircraft, 2019
The Emirates Airbus A380 is a sight to behold. Photo: Emirates

In late 2001, in the wake of the terrorist attacks in New York, Emirates braced for a shock that would reduce their bottom line like all airlines in the world. Yet… that would never be fully realized as the reduction of air travel led to fewer airlines flying to Dubai and thus less competition. Emirates yet again found itself in a position to swallow up the additional demand with ease.

In 2003, they celebrated their return to form with an order for 75 more aircraft, 26 Boeing 777-300ERs and 23 Airbus A380s.

Pivoting the airlines’ role to America and Asia

From here, Emirates focused on taking out their main rivals, such as British Airways, Air France and Lufthansa, by replacing them on lucrative Asia to North America routes.

Many flyers traveling from India and South Asia now found they could fly via Dubai to North America instead of through London, Paris or Frankfurt.

Emirates continued to expand its fleet, ordering more A380s, the new Boeing 777X to be delivered next year and examining a possible order between Airbus and Boeing (the 787 or the A350).

Emirates A350 preview
Emirates expects to receive its A350s in five years. Photo: Emirates

This brings the airline to the modern age, with airbus canceling orders for the A380 the airline had to give up its cause of massive aircraft over long distances and decide to invest in a more mixed fleet of A350s, Dreamliners and A330s.

Emirates has been incredibly lucky that it was in the right place at the right time, that it was there to fill in the void left by Gulf Air, that it was able to operate during the war, that it bloomed during the downturn and that it was profitable enough to rapidly expand. But straight luck isn’t’ the secret to their success, but that their management was able to do what was right at the right time to succeed.

Emirates history might be short, but if it keeps moving forward as it has, its future will be very long.

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