The birth of Emirates can be traced to growing dissatisfaction with Gulf Air. Nowadays only the Bahraini national carrier since 1973 when it was formed it had an ownership structure more closely associated with that of the African multi-national airline Air Afrique in that it was owned and operated for Bahrain, Qatar, Abu Dhabi and Oman. Nonetheless by 1984 Gulf Air had reduced service to Dubai and Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum began to look at forming his own airline.
The Sheikh partnered with Sir Maurice Flanagan, who worked at the Dubai National Air Transport Association, and provided $10 million of start-up funds. Of the two naming choices the Sheikh sensibly choose Emirates over the more prosaic Dubai Airlines. Emirates was officially launched on March 25, 1985.
With the name decided upon and only limited capital available Flanagan and his team got the airline off the ground in only five months. Unable to afford to purchase its own aircraft Emirates made a deal with Pakistan International to lease an A300B4 and a 737-300 from the PIA fleet for initial operations. Both aircraft joined Emirates by October in time for the carrier’s first flight on October 25, 1985 when EK600 departed Dubai bound for Karachi.
New Delhi and Bombay (now Mumbai) were other inaugural destinations, the beginning of a niche connecting Dubai to the Indian subcontinent that Emirates would make its own. The airline’s first owned equipment followed in December when the Sheikh gifted a 727-200 from the Dubai Air Wing (a second would be gifted later). Aside from this Emirates had to stand on its own two feet and not rely on state support.
Emirates achieved success almost immediately and was profitable within its first year. Gulf Air meanwhile saw a 56% drop in profits and would struggle to compete against its new rival. During 1986 Emirates expanded its routes and began direct service to Amman, Colombo, Cairo and Dhaka, however with only a single widebody it badly needed new aircraft. That year was also the only in its history where it has posted a financial loss.
These arrived in 1987 in the form of a pair of brand new Airbus A310-304s just in time for them to be operated on the airline’s new route into London Gatwick. Registered A6-EKA the first arrived on July 3. The A310s are fitted out to Emirates new standards providing an inflight experience superior to its rivals.
Through 1988 and 1989 Emirates adds both to its network (adding Damascus, Manila, Singapore and Bangkok) and its fleet. By the start of 1990 this stands at 3 727-200s, 2 A310s and the first new A300B4-605R (A6-EKC). From then on Airbus A310s and A300s would continue to arrive in a steady stream of a couple a year, although 1992 was a bumper year with 5 A310s joining. This is all the more impressive since the Gulf War not only brings global recession but also impacts operations from Dubai. In fact during 1991 Emirates manages to acquire slots at London Heathrow and a year later enters Paris also.
The carrier also has a firm eye on future expansion and switches supplier to Boeing for an early order of the manufacturer’s new and yet to fly Boeing 777. Seven series 200s are ordered with another seven options taken in a $64.5 million deal. After six years of operations 25,000 passengers a week are being flown to 23 destinations.
To support Emirates growth a new terminal was opened for it at Dubai in 1992 and the airline refitted its entire fleet with in-flight entertainment in all classes. Up until that point only Virgin had done something similar and then only on one of its 747s.
Emirates quickly moved onto the larger 777-300 and in the triple seven found a type perfectly suited to its high-volume flights into its ever-growing Dubai hub. The A300s and A310s continued to operate lower density services but an order for 16 A330-200s in 1997 signaled their time was drawing to a close. The first aircraft left the fleet in July 1997 with most of the smaller Airbuses gone by 2002.
At times Emirates business model has proven controversial but often this has been a sign of other carrier’s inability to compete against it. Certainly its achievements in opening up new flight opportunities to the Middle East region during the 1980s and 1990s are impressive and provided a stepping stone from which it could begin to dominate long haul markets from its perfectly placed Dubai hub.
I'm Richard Stretton: a fan of classic airliners and airlines who enjoys exploring their history through my collection of die-cast airliners. If you enjoy the site please donate whatever you can to help keep it running: