HH Sheikh Ahmed bin Saeed Al Maktoum discusses how Dubai’s aviation industry has really taken off

Flights of fancy

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A line of dignitaries moves forward along the red carpet to the mobile stairway, led by the then ruler of Dubai, HH Sheikh Maktoum bin Rashid Al Maktoum. As the leased A310 climbs into the sky, the camera pans over the beaming faces of the leadership of the Emirate of Dubai on board, while officials await their arrival on the tarmac at Karachi International.

Journey from desert backwater to global trade and tourism hub

The year is 1985. The moment is the inaugural flight of what is destined to become the Middle East’s biggest airline: Emirates.

Right behind HH Sheikh Maktoum that day is HH Sheikh Ahmed bin Saeed Al Maktoum, the man who would lead a company to global pre-eminence. Under his guidance, Emirates has grown from a tiny airline, dwarfed by regional competitors in one of the world’s sleepiest locales, to a global powerhouse challenging the complacency of the world’s flag carriers.

And, along the way, the Emirate of Dubai has been transformed from a desert backwater into perhaps the foremost hub for global trade, logistics and tourism.

As befits HH the Sheikh’s entrepreneurial nature, he serves in a plethora of positions too numerous to mention. Among the most prominent, he is Chairman and Chief Executive of Emirates Airline and Group, Chairman of flydubai, President of Dubai Civil Aviation Authority and Chairman of Dubai Airports.

A symbol of Dubai’s success, it’s a sight to see him climb purposefully into his distinctive Porsche Cayenne as he does the rounds every day in the Emirate to keep track of his many interests. “You must wonder how I find time to do all these jobs,” he quipped at an oil and gas event in Dubai last year.

Keeping up with evolving times

The Emirates Group has kept a very close watch on how the world is evolving, and its growth has reflected the global patterns of trade. “We expand to wherever makes sense for the business,” HH Sheikh Ahmed says. “We have a long wish list of destinations, which we’re gradually rolling out as aircraft arrive.” Last year, Emirates opened 15 new routes - a record year for destination launches.

The power of Emirates continues to grow with each new destination, of which there are now 133 in 77 countries.

“A particular strength for Emirates is the size of its network, enabling us to activate business between all sorts of city pairs, for example within China and Africa or throughout China and Brazil, and exploiting east-west connectivity through Dubai. The strength of our business model and the healthy spread of risk at many levels have been the main factors that have helped us through the more difficult times,” HH Sheikh Ahmed says.

“From the beginning, I have concentrated on making and keeping the strategy of Emirates very focused: to grow organically, connect cities across the world via Dubai, offer unbeatable value for money and provide an unmatched level of service,” he adds. “By following this strategy, we have been profitable in all of our years of operation, apart from year two.”

Making travel accessible

Dubai-based low-cost carrier flydubai has also prospered under HH Sheikh Ahmed’s tutelage. It was launched by the Government of Dubai in March 2008, and began operations in June 2009 to Beirut, Lebanon.

“The vision was to provide a low-cost alternative on already popular routes from Dubai, while opening up destinations that were underserved by the UAE.

The airline now flies to more than 60 destinations, no small achievement in just three years,” he says proudly.

Pricing and network remain critical to the success of flydubai.

To make travel more accessible for everyone, flydubai offers unbundled fares whereby the fare includes the cost of the seat, all taxes and hand baggage, with everything else offered as an optional extra, putting the passenger in control of their spend. With this strategy, in its first year of operations, traffic to Lebanon and Egypt grew at double digit rates, with Jordan growing as much as 40%.

“I think pricing and network remain critical to the success of flydubai. I know the unbundled fare policy, combined with low fares, has been very attractive to customers, allowing more people to travel, more often. This customer service model has worked surprisingly well.”

Like any global entrepreneur, however, HH Sheikh Ahmed’s focus remains on leanness and efficiency. “One of the common challenges to any airline, low cost, full service or otherwise, is the cost of fuel. This continues to be a real thorn in the side of our operations. In the last financial year, Emirates’ fuel bill was up by 15% to US$7.6b.”

But offsetting this cost challenge, there is a low average fleet age, which means the airline operates more fuel-efficient engines.

Staying ahead of the game

Overall, HH the Sheikh is optimistic about the future, but he is only too aware, given the intensely competitive environment and the global forces at play - such as the economy and oil prices - that the airline needs to remain smart and reactive and stay ahead of the game.

“I think any business that wishes to be successful cannot stand still when the world is moving and changing so quickly,” HH Sheikh Ahmed says. Indeed, the brand has a formidable reputation for pioneering innovative new ideas in the aviation sector: in 1993, Emirates became the first airline to introduce telecommunications on an Airbus - in all three classes.

HH Sheikh Ahmed also points to the billions of dollars of investment spanning Emirates’ fleet, aircraft interiors, lounges, products and services to deliver an experience customers are eager to repeat and share.

In commending the team around him, HH Sheikh Ahmed cites the collective wisdom of the founding management team and staff, who are committed to delivering daily, as one of the key reasons for Emirates’ success.

Any business that wishes to be successful can’t stand still.

“The Emirates Group’s greatest asset is its staff. Every year, our employees accomplish remarkable feats that help to keep us moving forward. The cultural diversity of our staff really adds to the way we do business and it is crucial that any new employees fit into this very international environment.

“There is just no room for slackness in the airline business,” HH adds. “So Emirates seeks the very best on the market.” Fortunately for him, given the strength of the brand and the well-known success of his aviation enterprise, they have plenty of applicants keen to join the team of 68,000 people across the world.

With his quizzical gaze and softly spoken mien, HH Sheikh Ahmed’s demeanor exudes the calm of a man in control not only of his own destiny, but that of the tens of thousands who work for him.

In 2011, a report by Oxford Economics found that aviation contributed US$22b to Dubai’s GDP, or 28% of the total, and supported 224,000, or 19%, of jobs in an Emirate that today has a population of only 1.5 million.

“Aviation and Dubai go hand in hand. Unlike the trend in other countries, the UAE places aviation at the center of its economy and the results of that approach over the past 25 years are clear,” HH says. “As a result, Emirates invests billions of dollars each year in its growth strategy, by way of new destinations, new aircraft and innovative, customer-focused products.”

This successful business strategy, coupled with a continuing transformation of Dubai’s aviation infrastructure, suggests that Emirates and flydubai will soar to ever greater heights in the future with HH Sheikh Ahmed bin Saeed Al Maktoum firmly in the cockpit.